For an art conservator, it’s a special joy to reveal part of a painting that’s been hidden for years,” says Lowy’s Fred Schmidt enthusiastically. “And this case was especially gratifying because the ‘hidden’ element is such an important part of the overall composition.” Late last year, a private client brought a painting by Thomas Moran (1837-1926) to Lowy for cleaning and conservation. When the work was examined, UV light revealed an area of overpaint on a small portion of the right side. “It was clear that the brushstrokes in this area didn’t match the technique of the artist – they were too dashy, too choppy,” observed Schmidt.
“So we carefully removed some of this obvious overpaint and found that the impasto had been scraped off of what used to be a dome that matched the one next to it.” The base of the dome was intact, but had been overpainted. The top, however, had been almost completely removed. So now that they found the ghost of a second tower, what should they do with it? Jerilyn Campbell, registrar of Lowy’s conservation department, searched for other works with the same view. She found a painting by Turner in the Tate Museum, “Landscape from Greenwich Park,” with a markedly similar view that showed two domes. Was our painting actually an English landscape, not an Italian one as previously thought? And did the artist intend the second dome?
To help answer these questions, Lowy consulted Steve Good, an art historian currently writing the catalogue raisonnée on Thomas Moran. Good agreed with Lowy’s assessment that the second tower was part of the original composition and that the “view” was in fact of London. After consulting with the client, it was decided to keep the second dome uncovered and restore it as closely as possible to what was believed to be Moran’s original composition. But before dealing with aesthetic considerations, Schmidt had to insure the stability of the paint and canvas support.
The brittle glue adhesive and old lining canvas were removed; the work was then relined using a thermoplastic adhesive called BEVA and a new linen canvas. To insure maximum stability, an interlayer of Pe-Cap, a synthetic canvas that will not shrink, was also used. The painting was cleaned and overpaint removed, as was a heavy layer of very discolored natural resin varnish over a discolored oil film. After re-varnishing with a synthetic resin, the lost area of the dome and some minor tears were inpainted using pigments mulled in the same synthetic resin which makes the inpainting easily reversible.
“The existing base and the other tower provided all the information we needed to bring back the lost tower,” Schmidt adds. Finally, the painting was refit into its original Barbizon frame — which Lowy also restored. Schmidt concludes: “I’ve been an art conservator for 20 years and I love what I do,” he says with a satisfied sigh, “but it’s a real pleasure to make a discovery such as this one and restore a painting to its original state.”