Conservation of a family heirloom

Conservation of this family heirloom painting resulted in a dramatic change.  The ca 1850 oil painting on canvas of a young Elizabeth King Vick was brought into our lab by her great great great granddaughter.  The painting showed all the signs of a painting that is over 160 years old. It had a thick covering of dirt, discolored and opaque varnish, a complex network of very cupped and raised cracks throughout the paint layer, likely water damage, a slack deformed and weak canvas, active paint loss due to instability of the paint on the canvas and obvious previous restorations around the head of the figure and overpainting in other areas.

The painting received a consolidative lining on our multi-purpose suction table to secure the paint  and strengthen the canvas.  A wax resin mixture was introduced through the front and back of the painting, and the paint was pulled down to and stabilized in place under suction with heat, the consolidant filling all voids in the brittle ground and paint layers.  In modern conservation practice, a lining of this type is carried out only as a last resort in extreme circumstances because there are other methods of stabilizing less damaged paintings.

The consolidation made the paint layer strong enough to be cleaned of dirt and discolored varnish.  A solvent cleaning gel was used to safely remove dirt and discolored varnish.  All consolidant was  removed from the paint surface so that it remained only under the paint.

Elizabeth’s head was surrounded by a caramel toned over-paint, applied years ago during a restoration. This paint was removed in a separate procedure using solvents on swabs and a scalpel. To our surprise, the sitter was wearing a straw bonnet which transformed Elizabeth from a dour girl to a lively young woman. The overpaint was obviously intended to make the sitter appear more demure.

Lost paint and areas from which we removed over-paint were infilled with a wax resin mixture, textured to match.   These were inpainted using a conservation media, the colour matched by eye. In line with conservation ethics, we only inpaint into losses and not onto any artist paint.

The painting after conservation is stable and represents the artist’s intent and the personality of Elizabeth King Vick.