Galleries : The art of painting restoration
Like a good doctor, Falmouth painting restorer Ian Primrose makes house calls. Martha's Vineyard Museum (MVM) curator Dana Street calls Mr. Primrose when she has questions about the condition and care of paintings in the museum's collection, and he helps keep the museum's artwork in top condition. Most recently he worked on a portrait of Zebulon Northrop Tilton by Thomas Hart Benton.
Mr. Primrose's association with the museum began by chance in 2006, when his wife, Jennifer Shubow, who works as a counselor and interpreter for Family Planning of Martha's Vineyard in Vineyard Haven, was on the ferry and met Keith Gorman, then librarian for the museum (and later, its director). Both were regular commuters and became "boat buddies." When Mr. Gorman learned that Ms. Shubow's husband was an art restorer, he enlisted him to serve as the museum's restoration and conservation consultant.
The portrait of famous schooner captain Zeb Tilton spent the summer of 2008 in Mr. Primrose's Falmouth studio. After several months living with the painting so that he could get to know it intimately, Mr. Primrose began the task of cleaning off accumulated surface dirt and removing discolored vanish. In Zeb's case, dealing with flaking paint was also part of the restoration process.
Mr. Primrose explains that this fascinating and painstaking process begins with extensive tests. "You give yourself an understanding of how [the painting] was made and what materials the artist used," he says. "You get an idea of the solvents you can use through minute tests, usually on the edge of the painting."
Art restorers follow the same code of ethics as physicians with the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm. "One must not feel obligated to do anything," says Mr. Primrose, who trained at the University of Birmingham, and apprenticed in London before moving to Falmouth in 2001.
Previously restored, Zeb's likeness was generally in excellent condition. Mr. Primrose removed the varnish applied to protect the painting, because there are often multiple layers of varnish and dirt that create a thick veil over a work. Once they are removed, the painting comes back to life.
Like many 20th- and 21st-century painters, Mr. Benton had not varnished his portrait of the schooner captain. Protective varnishing, a practice used in the 19th century more often than today, helps to unify the surface of a painting, which otherwise can change in looks once it dries.
"The surface was varied, almost sculpturally, to bring out Zeb's profile," says Mr. Primrose. "It was varnished later." The portrait is one of the more valuable works in the museum's collection, which may explain the decision to varnish it during its last restoration, in 1977.
Mr. Primrose has also completed work on another of the museum's paintings: a full-length, double portrait of two Island children, Eliza and Levi Beetle, a major piece in the Museum's holdings.
Mr. Primrose's condition report went on for several hundred words about the poor state of the painting. "The canvas was buckled and warped, partly for environmental reasons and partly because of the original preparation of the canvas," he says. He reversed the environmental buckling, but left the original canvas warps in place, since to reverse it might cause further damage. He also consolidated flaking paint.
Restorers do not simply remove the loose flakes of paint on an old painting. Flaking can occur between paint layers or the canvas itself and paint. So in an intriguing process, they grind dry pigment and bind it into paint with synthetic materials that are stable, inert, non-yellowing and easily removed.
"Using oil paint is unethical, because all materials must be easily removed," Mr. Primrose says. That makes the work of the next restoration easier. Illustrating how precise restoration work must be, he says that in the Beetles portrait, an earlier restorer had in-painted (retouched) over the edges of the original. The result made a mess for the next restorer.
"A big question is how much to restore, when it comes to replacing lost areas if the painting has lost significant areas," Mr. Primrose explains. "With extensive small losses, you can tell what was lost. When the areas of loss are extensive, you can't be sure what was there."
Restorers can recover elements of a painting that people didn't know were there, according to Mr. Primrose. "In Victorian England, fig leaves were over-painted in 16th-century or earlier paintings on parts that offended Victorian sensibilities," he says.
Other elements of a painting can reappear through chemical changes in aging oil paint, Mr. Primrose says. The term for that process -- pentimento -- was used by late playwright and Vineyard summer resident Lillian Hellman as the title for a memoir.
Although Mr. Primrose is not engaged in any MVM projects at present, he is on call for when the occasion arises. He recently traveled to Tennessee to examine paintings scheduled to go out on loan, for which he prepared a condition report. As well as working with museums and private collectors from the Island and elsewhere, he also works for art dealers including Boston's Bose Gallery.
Brooks Robards regularly writes of art, film, and books for The Times.