Art Conservator | Volume 5 No. 1

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A P U B L I C A T I O N o f T h e W illia m s town A r t C on s e r v ation C e nt e r

Volu m e 5 , N u m b e r 1   •  S P R I N G 2 0 1 0

The Katrina Chronicles Williamstown Art Conservation Center  |  1

Contents, Spring 2010

Art Conservator Volume 5, Number 1 • Spring 2010

3 Director’s Letter

Director Thomas J. Branchick

4 The Handwriting on the Wall

Editor Timothy Cahill Art Direction and Production Berg Design, Albany NY Photographer Matthew Hamilton Contributors Bree Lehman, Montserrat Le Mense, Allison McCloskey, Kathleen Payne de Chavez Office Manager Rob Conzett

Saving a historic diary of the Katrina disaster By Montserrat Le Mense

10 Monsieur Robert Was Here Lenett Fellow traces an eighteenth-century artist from outcast of the French Revolution to prominent Hudson Valley portraitist By Bree Lehman

Accounts Manager Terry Haskins

16 Form and Function in Cooperstown

Office Assistant Amanda Turner

A brief history of the catcher’s mask

Printing Snyder Printer, Troy, NY Design Concept Kosak Design, Pittsburgh, PA Williamstown Art Conservation Center 227 South Street Williamstown, MA 01267 T: 413-458-5741 F: 413-458-2314 Atlanta Art Conservation Center 6000 Peachtree Road Atlanta, GA 30341 T: 404-733-4589 F: 678-547-1453 All rights reserved. Text and photographs copyright © Williamstown Art Conservation Center (WACC), unless otherwise noted. Art Conservator is published twice yearly by WACC, Thomas J. Branchick, director. Material may not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Williamstown Art Conservation Center. WACC is a nonprofit, multi-service conservation center serving the needs of member museums, nonprofit institutions and laboratories, and the general public.

On the cover Detail from Elton Mabry’s Katrina diary, written on the walls of his New Orleans apartment.

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18 WACC News & Notes Echoes of samurai history in a suit of armor; an elegant secretary out of the ashes; Douglass Crockwell in Glens Falls; Stockman Family gifts new X-ray unit; Otto Dix in New York; Honolulu master drawings

23 Tech Notes Historic Mercury Amalgam Mirrors: History, Safety, and Preservation By Kathleen Payne de Chavez

From the Director

We have received a lot of positive feedback from the cover story of our Fall 2009 issue of Art Conservator. The story, “A Gilbert Stuart Mystery,” was about Stuart’s Portrait of Catherine Brass Yates in the National Gallery of Art, and a second version of the painting which experts determined was a copy done by an unknown artist. T‌he story was eagerly read by a Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia, Katherine Woltz, who is concentrating on the work of the American painter John Vanderlyn. Ms. Woltz contacted me to suggest the possibility that the author of the Stuart copy was her man. Vanderlyn studied with Stuart both informally and formally from 1792 to 1796, during which time he was allowed to copy Stuart’s portraits of Aaron Burr and Egbert Benson. Vanderlyn also painted a portrait of his mother, which is a reverse of the portrait of Mrs. Yates, but has the same mobcap and needle and thread. T‌his new evidence has initiated further study into the Yates second version. T‌he Vanderlyn attribution is a real possibility. I went to view the portrait of Vanderlyn mère at the New York State collections-care facility at Peebles Island in Waterford, New York. Unfortunately, the picture itself was badly skinned and abraded in a past restoration effort, but the canvas weave was identical, and it did have very similar characteristics in the brushwork of the fabric folds. So the saga continues. I really enjoy the Sherlock Holmes endeavor, and hopefully we are getting closer to solving the mystery. All of this is proof-positive that a conservation publication can contribute to the field of information. And what a fabulous exhibition a show of Stuarts and Vanderlyn copies would make. Any curator looking for a fresh idea can run with this. May marks two years that we have been in the Stone Hill Center. When I come to work in the morning, I am still in awe of this beautiful building in its beautiful setting. —Tom Branchick

View of Stone Hill Center, through a scrim of spring green. Williamstown Art Conservation Center  |  3

Cover Story

The Handwriting on the Walls Saving a historic diary of the Katrina disaster By Montserrat Le Mense

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WACC paintings conservator Montserrat Le Mense (right) and Williams College student Vanessa Soetanto, at work on a section of the Elton Mabry diary.

Courtesy Vanessa Soetanto

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As Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans on August 28, 2005, Tommie Elton Mabry hunkered down in his aunt’s apartment in the B.W. Cooper public housing complex. As the storm increased, Mabry went to sleep on the floor, and woke to find his neighborhood flooded. Rather than flee, he chose to stay where he was, without power, without food, without support of any kind. Isolated and fearful, Mabry occupied himself by recording his thoughts on a wall of the apartment. For two months, until authorities were able to relocate him to a new home, Mabry endured in part by filling the apartment with a chronicle of his life after the devastation. News of Mabry’s mural diary drew interest from around the world; nevertheless, by the summer of 2008, the Housing Authority of New Orleans had condemned the Cooper development and was preparing to tear it down—including Mabry’s murals. T‌hat is when Greg Lambousy, director of the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, contacted the Williamstown Art Conservation Center on how best to rescue a portion of the murals from the housing project and preserve them for history. Once removed, the murals were sent to WACC’s Stone Hill Center facility, where paintings conservator Montserrat Le Mense repaired and stabilized them. Here, punctuated by entries from Mabry’s diary, Montserrat recounts her experience working with what she calls “this singular historic artifact.” T‌he murals go on permanent display at the Louisiana State Museum in October.

Courtesy Greg Lambousy/Louisiana State Museum

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Composite image of Elton Mabry’s apartment, from pictures taken by Louisiana State Museum workers as they prepared to remove the diary from the cinder-block walls.



‌ e Mabry murals are unlike any project I have ever h worked on. It’s a puzzle even to characterize them. A diary, but not on paper. A mural, but without a wall. Artifact? Object? T‌hey are a remnant from an interior dwelling, but not decorative art. Taken from a ruin, but not archeological. Because they are unique, a simple description will have to do: T‌he Mabry murals are five to seven layers of common household interior paint, covered with faded red and black marker. I may never work on anything more significant. T‌he first I heard of them was a phone call from WACC objects conservator Allison McCloskey, who was in New Orleans. It was the summer of 2008, three years after Katrina. She needed a painting conservator’s ideas on how to remove a paint layer from a wall without destroying what was drawn on it. T‌here was a diary, she said, written with markers on the walls by a trapped Katrina survivor. Part of the building was already gone, the walls exposed to the elements. T‌he building had been condemned, cordoned off, posted as dangerous. WINDY, VERY WINDY. RAIN GONE DOWNTOWN? SO BE KOOL. OK. AIN’T DOING TO GOOD TODAY.

I don’t remember much of what I suggested, but I do remember thinking “50-50 chance.” Trying to remove it, they could easily destroy it. I distinctly remember feeling a guilty gratitude that I wasn’t in charge of the undertaking. I wondered if I would ever learn how the effort had turned out. I did find out. In January 2009, a group of WACC conservators were in New Orleans completing a survey of the paintings collection of the Louisiana State Museum. While

there, Greg Lambousy, the museum’s director, took me into a storage room filled with a bizarre mixture of objects that had, at first glance, no obvious connection to each other. I brushed against a brightly colored flip-up seat and wondered, What are these theater seats doing here? Not theater seats, Greg told me. From the Superdome. Images from television, magazines and the Internet came crashing in, of Katrina survivors trapped in that cavernous football stadium for days without water or food. I was surrounded by Katrina artifacts. T‌he entire room was filled with mundane objects, made mysterious by the story they had to tell. T‌he power of a physical thing to connect you to a moment in time, that was the power of the Mabry murals. T‌he murals were high up in the room, three giant cardboard rolls with wrapped fragments of the diary. T‌he paint layers had been removed and stored like rolled rugs; just the paint, a sixteenth of an inch thick, no wall. We want to display them, Greg said. What do we do next? ARMY ALL OVER EVERYWHERE. BUT NO LIGHTS, YET, AS OF 11:00 A.M. Fast forward several months. Two wooden crates, one more than ten-feet long, arrived at Stone Hill Center, carrying all of Elton Mabry’s diary that could be removed from the condemned building. My job: to adhere the fragments to a new support, so that this singular historic artifact could be displayed for the public and preserved by the museum. In the crates, all that was visible was the pebbly texture of a chalky, mint-green paint layer—the back of the rolled-up murals. It was only as we unwrapped the tubes and started unrolling the fragments onto the table that we saw the diary and first “heard” the voice of Elton Mabry, the words jumping up from the surface. No one could come through the lab without reading a line or two out loud, sometimes laughing, but usually just shaking his or her head, spending a moment in Mr. Mabry’s world as it was during those harrowing weeks. GONE DOWNTOWN. AIN’T DOING TOO GOOD T‌he unsupported paint layers arrived brittle and strongly curled from their time rolled up. To help relax the paint, a thick, moisture-heavy acrylic dispersion was chosen as the adhesive. Solvents had to be avoided—they would damage the ink as well as the paint layers. An acrylic fabric was chosen as the new support layer, for strength, durability and flexibility, so the murals could be rolled again for storage if needed. Once lined to the fabric, the murals could be attached to wooden stretchers like a traditional painting on canvas. Williamstown Art Conservation Center  |  7

crumbled and allowed the layers of latex paint on top to release cleanly from the wall. A leading edge was removed along the top and taped to a large cardboard tube. T‌hen, little by little, the mural was gently pried off the crumbling cinder blocks and onto the cardboard roll, so it could be kept in one piece and safely moved out of the building. On one wall, despite the best efforts of the crew, only a small portion could be pulled more or less intact. T‌he rest came in numerous broken pieces, stuck in the resin that had been applied to hold the surface together. T‌hese bits, curled up, ripped and fragmented as they were, were kept, as many as could be saved. T‌hey came to WACC in a box tucked under the rolled fragments.

Courtesy Vanessa Soetanto


As interesting as the project was for me to work on, my role in preparing the diary for display is not the compelling or heroic part. T‌he real heroism belonged to the people who determined that the diary must not be lost, and acted so effectively and decisively to save it. Led by Patrick Burns, curator at the Louisiana State Museum, a team of volunteers rolled up their sleeves and made it happen. T‌here was no way to take the murals down with the walls, which were made of cinder block. A plan was devised. T‌he first step was to support the paint with two coats of a clear adhesive resin to protect and stiffen the top layers. T‌hen, the workers scored around the text and coaxed the top layers away from the walls with thin, flexible spatulas. Providentially, the paint had a weak link—that chalky, mint-green layer. It was a lousy paint. It

Working with the larger wall segments turned out to be surprisingly straight-forward. We simply adhered the unsupported paint layers to a new surface. T‌he desire was to keep the mural as original as possible. Except for another layer of resin that was added to protect the surface, and a few small fills to help bridge missing letters, nothing was added or removed. T‌he last wall, which had suffered the most damage, did not proceed quite as easily as the others. T‌here was the box—the one with the broken, curled pieces, the bits and chips and slivers stuck to each other. I can’t think about that box without being thankful for Vanessa Soetanto, a Williams College Winter Study student pursuing an independent study at the lab. Vanessa became an invaluable ally during the Mabry treatment. She rolled adhesive, stretched fabric, crawled around on the hot table cleaning the edges of the mural. No detail was too small for her, no task too difficult. I have an image of her hunched over the tray that held the smallest and most distorted of the displaced fragments, painstakingly retrieving pieces no larger than three millimeters. She pieced them together, aligning them and hunting the correct spot in the puzzle that was this last, damaged section. T‌here were dozens of fragments to deal with, and it is with great satisfaction that I can say that the pieces that could not be placed back into the diary numbered

Above, a section of the most damaged of the Mabry walls, showing paint fragments as they arrived from New Orleans. Opposite, the largest of the murals, after treatment.

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just two, each no larger than a letter in this sentence. OFFICER HAS TOLD ME TO MOVE OUT. I TRY TO CLEAN THE OLD APARTMENT ON SECOND STREET. I GOT TO MOVE. DAM, DAM, DAM. HOW MUCH CAN I STAND FOR. T‌he treatment took about a month overall, including research and prep time, with most of the work being done in about two weeks. When it was complete, my pleasure was mingled with relief. T‌he project was so unpredictable, such

an unknown. I’d never treated an enormous unsupported paint layer before, and I couldn’t be sure of what was going to happen or what was going to work. It could have all gone very, very badly. I am pleased to say it did not and delighted that the mural is back in New Orleans. It gives me fierce pleasure that this diary, the voice of one man who witnessed and chronicled the aftermath of Katrina, has been preserved. It seems right that Elton Mabry will be heard. His mural diaries are a physical link to that time and place. T‌hey have become part of our cultural heritage.

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Monsieur Robert Was Here Lenett Fellow traces an eighteenth-century artist from outcast of the French Revolution to prominent Hudson Valley portraitist By Bree Lehman Each academic year, the Judith M. Lenett Memorial Fellowship is awarded to a second-year student in the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art. T‌he fellowship, which is jointly administered by Williams, the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, and T‌he Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, allows recipients to explore issues of conservation in the field of American art. Working closely with WACC staff, each fellow spends two semesters researching and conserving an American art object. T‌his year’s Lenett Fellow, Bree Lehman, focused on a pair of eighteenth-century oil portraits from Wilderstein Historic Site in Rhinebeck, New York. With guidance from T‌homas Branchick, Director and Chief Conservator of Paintings, Sandra Webber, Conservator of Paintings, and Hugh Glover, Chief Conservator of Furniture and Wood Objects, the project culminated in a public lecture and exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art. Ms. Lehman will pursue her Ph.D. in art history at the City University of New York in the fall.


will discharge Mr. Robert…Let me receive your answer, that the man may not be detained. Yours with Respect and Esteem, Philip J. Schuyler 2

Dear Sir, I have with me an unfortunate French gentleman who has been driven from his country by the late abominable persecutions. He is a man of family and was of fortune; for his amusement having learned the art of portrait painting, is now unhappily obliged to pursue it as a profession. He has taken some pictures for me with great success, and extremely reasonable, his price being only 30 dollars. I think his likenesses and paintings not much if any inferior to Mr. Steward.1 I can recommend him to my friends as a decent, modest, young man. He will go up [to Albany] if he can procure four or five engaged pictures—possibly they may be had in yours and my father’s family—be so kind as to propose it to them, and give your patronage to the thing. Should you think fit to employ him…I

T‌his letter is one of few documents that record the émigré portraitist known as “Monsieur Robert.”3 Robert reportedly came to the United States in the last years of the eighteenth century to escape the violent turmoil of the French Revolution. Once here, he parlayed his former gentlemanly education in the arts into a career as a portrait painter.4 While our knowledge of Monsieur Robert himself remains limited, a number of portraits thought to be by his hand have come to light in recent years. T‌hese depict members of a socially prominent Hudson River Valley family and were likely completed in Rhinebeck, New York, around 1795. Wilderstein Historic Site, the estate of the Suckley family, also in Rhinebeck, has the largest known holdings of Monsieur Robert’s work with four oil paintings and two pastels.5

n October of 1795, Philip Jeremiah Schuyler sent a letter from his home in Rhinebeck, New York, to his brotherin-law Stephen Van Rensselaer in Albany. He wrote:

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sister, is the fifth work by Robert in Wilderstein’s collection.6 Lastly, his portrait of Alida Livingston Rutsen Van Rensselaer, Phebe Sands’s mother-in-law from her first marriage and grandmother to her daughters, was painted when the sitter was 80 years of age. Alida Van Rensselaer’s portrait is the only work by Robert in Wilderstein’s collection that is signed. While the portrait may have been completed in Rhinebeck, it is also possible that the painter traveled north to work at Mrs. Van Rensselaer’s home in Claverack.7 T‌hese last two portraits, depicting Catherine Suckley and Alida Van Rensselaer, have been at Wilderstein since they were left to Catherine’s son T‌homas Holy Suckley in 1875. Apart from the portraits already mentioned, there are three others commonly thought to be by Monsieur Robert: Catherine

Collection of Wilderstein Historic Site (2)

During my time as Lenett Fellow, I have focused on Wilderstein’s pendant oil portraits of Robert Sands and his wife Phebe Carman Rutsen Sands. T‌hese portraits are the last of Wilderstein’s works by Robert to undergo treatment at WACC. Monsieur Robert’s portraits of Robert and Phebe Sands were given to Wilderstein in 2000 by the couple’s great-greatgreat grandson. T‌his donor also gave two pastel portraits by Robert depicting Sarah Rutsen Schuyler, Phebe Sands’s younger daughter from her first marriage, and Sarah’s husband, Philip J. Schuyler, whose letter is transcribed above. T‌he pastels are similar to Robert’s oil portraits of the Schuylers, now at Schuyler Mansion in Albany, New York. T‌he artist’s portrait of Catherine Rutsen Suckley, Phebe’s elder daughter from her first marriage and Sarah Schuyler’s

Pendant oil portraits by “Monsieur Robert” discussed in the article: Robert Sands (1745-1825) and Phebe Carman Rutsen Sands (1747-1819), c. 1795.

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Lenett Fellow Bree Lehman inspects the portrait of Phebe Sands with Wilderstein curator Duane Watson, center, and advisor William Clutz.

Van Rensselaer Schuyler (1781–1857) at Schuyler Mansion, Margaret Livingston Livingston (1738–1809) at the Columbia County Historical Society in Kinderhook, and a copy of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, now in the Museum of the City of New York. As Philip Schuyler noted in his letter to Stephen Van Rensselaer, it is Stuart whose work provides the most relevant American counterpoint to Robert. T‌he artists shared a keen eye for individual likeness, a talent for rendering translucent, rosy skin tones, and a penchant for applying paint in thin, washlike layers. Robert’s work is sometimes mistaken for that of the American painter John Vanderlyn, but Vanderlyn’s style is generally too starkly drawn and modeled for these comparisons to bear much weight.8 Although we do not know the true nature or extent of Robert’s artistic education, Ellen Miles, recently named Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, notes that Robert’s “sensitive depictions suggest 12  |  Art Conservator  |  Spring 2010

a trained artist. His copy of Stuart’s portrait of Robert Livingston is evidence of his ability to mimic the portrait styles of sophisticated painters trained in England or in France.”9 Robert’s portraits of Robert and Phebe Sands are also particularly compelling evocations of his abilities in these respects. Robert Sands’s portrait characterizes him as a straightforward, dignified man whose seriousness of purpose and steadfast demeanor has brought him to his current station in life. Sands’s elegant Chippendale chair and judicious style of dress display his affluence without sacrificing an air of restraint. Sands was born on Long Island and was the third son among eight siblings. He came to Rhinebeck in the early years of his life and married widow Phebe Carman Rutsen in 1779. Shortly after their marriage, he took over operations for her inherited mills and properties. With his step-son-in-law, Philip J. Schuyler, he eventually expanded the family’s enterprise to include docks and storehouses along the Hudson River, as well

Collection of Wilderstein Historic Site

Sands House, they were also exhibited separately during part as forms of transportation for passengers and goods headed downstream.10 Sands, who was a lawyer by training, was elected of their history. T‌his, along with differences in each portrait’s canvas quality and preparation, which I will discuss further, to the New York State Senate in 1796.11 might account for some of the disparities in their conditions. Around the same time that Monsieur Robert painted his One of the first discoveries I made when the portraits portrait, Robert Sands built a new house on Landsman’s Kill, arrived at WACC was that neither had been conserved just east of Rhinebeck. Philip and Sarah Schuyler also built their own house directly adjacent to the Sandses’. A descendant previously or even varnished. Examination with ultraviolet light revealed no trace of the yellow-green haze that indicates of these individuals writing in 1876 noted that the two houses were among the largest between Poughkeepsie and Red Hook.12 aged natural resin varnish, or the more bluish haze that suggests a synthetic resin. To confirm that the portraits were Given this roughly contemporaneous series of events, indeed unvarnished, tiny samples Robert’s portrait of Robert Sands were collected from various points takes on additional meaning. on the painted surface. T‌he samples As a skilled entrepreneur with were then embedded in a polyestera number of flourishing local resin matrix that was polished to businesses, a candidate for the allow for viewing in cross-section. New York State Senate, an owner T‌hey were finally treated with a of one of the most impressive succession of fluorescent indicators homes in the area, and a father and viewed microscopically under with two step-daughters and different illumination conditions. five children of his own, Sands Each of these tests confirmed likely wanted to record and that the paintings were indeed commemorate this successful and unvarnished. (ostensibly) happy period in his I then proceeded to remove the life. canvases from their frames and Like her husband’s portrait by vacuum many decades’ worth of Robert, Phebe Sands’s likeness dust from their surfaces. Along the also exudes dignity and gravity. lower edge of Phebe Sands’s portrait, As a woman of property, a widow just under the arm of her chair, an during the Revolutionary War, enterprising mud wasp had built a and a mother to seven children, nest in the space between the canvas Mrs. Sands occupied a privileged and the frame’s rabbet. I removed and respected place within her View into the Sands House dining room, showing the this using a scalpel and rolled cotton larger extended family. In a portrait of Phebe Sands, c. 1930s or 1940s. swabs. photograph dating to the 1930s In examining the two canvases without their frames, it or 1940s, her portrait presides over the house that Robert Sands quickly became obvious that their quality and preparation were had built nearly a century and a half earlier. T‌he Sandses’ very different. T‌he portrait of Robert Sands is executed on portraits, which were removed from the home along with other original contents, just barely escaped the fire that destroyed the what appears to be a commercially prepared linen canvas with a thread count of thirty-four threads per square inch and a very Sands House in 1999.13 even weave. T‌he canvas is primed with a cream-colored coat of Although Monsieur Robert’s portraits of Robert and Phebe Sands certainly fared well in this respect, they nevertheless have paint that has seeped through to the reverse in limited areas. a number of condition issues that required careful conservation T‌he edges of the canvas are evenly cut, and there is no cusping present. over the past several months. Mrs. Sands’s portrait was in some Mrs. Sands’s canvas, on the other hand, while also made of ways the more fragile of the two. It seems clear the pair were linen, is darker and rougher than that of her husband’s. It has a painted as pendants, but as indicated by the photograph from Williamstown Art Conservation Center  |  13

Collection of Wilderstein Historic Site (3)

A gallery of portraits by Monsieur Robert. From left, Philip Jeremiah Schuyler and Sarah Rutsen Schuyler, pastel on paper, c. 1795, and Catherine Rutsen Suckley, oil on canvas, c. 1795.

higher thread count at fifty threads per square inch, but a much more uneven weave. It was primed with a charcoal-gray ground layer, evidently applied with some degree of force. Much of this priming color pushed through the gaps in the canvas’ weave and collected in large areas on the reverse. Unlike the canvas Robert used for the portrait of Mr. Sands, the tacking edges here are unevenly cut, and there is an excess of fabric along the picture’s lower edge. Finally, there is substantial cusping present. All of these characteristics suggest that, while the canvas used for Mr. Sands’s portrait was probably commercially prepared, Robert himself prepared the canvas for Mrs. Sands’s portrait. When the time came to clean the portraits, it took several trials to identify the appropriate solution for lifting the ground-in dirt and grime layer without disturbing the fragile, unvarnished surfaces. I began cleaning the portrait of Robert Sands with 0.5 percent citrate solution (pH 8.0). T‌his, however, began to cause slight blanching in the paint layer. When I switched to 1.4 percent citrate solution (pH 6.5) and then to a Pluronic surfactant (pH 5.9), the blanching continued. In the end, to avoid any permanent disturbance to the paint layer, I abandoned the use of all surfactants and opted to use deionized water. After I had removed the surface grime from both portraits, I used a scalpel to remove numerous flyspecks and other accretions. Once the paintings’ surfaces were clean, they were removed from their stretchers. T‌he stretcher supporting Phebe Sands’s portrait was in good condition. Mr. Sands’s stretcher, however, 14  |  Art Conservator  |  Spring 2010

had to be repaired as it was broken in two places. T‌he significant draws and distortions in both canvases were slowly reduced through a gradual process of applying damp blotters under increasing weight. T‌he tears in Phebe Sands’s portrait were also addressed in this fashion in an attempt to bring the separated edges as close together as possible. As canvas naturally dries out and constricts over the course of its life, existing tears open further and further. Based on this, the tears in Mrs. Sands’s portrait appeared to be old. To mend these areas, I cut lightweight Japanese tissue to size and affixed it with Jade 403 adhesive. In spite of this local damage, the canvases’ overall stable condition allowed me to use their original tacking edges to re-stretch them. T‌he original tacks, corroded and weakened by frequent exposure to damp conditions, were replaced with copper tacks, which are more resistant to humidity. After the paintings were back on their stretchers, they received a brush coat of varnish comprised of Paraloid B-67 and Laropal K 80. Two centuries without protection had made the surfaces very dry, and much of this first coat was quickly absorbed. I then began in-painting both canvases’ losses using powdered pigments mixed with Paraloid B-67 and Laropal K 80 resins in xylene. When this was complete, the pictures received additional coats of varnish to saturate their colors and seal their surfaces from moisture and other potentially damaging agents. One final note of interest on the process of conserving these two paintings: for reasons that are still unclear, Robert and

Collection of Wilderstein Historic Site

Collection of Schuyler Mansion (2)

Sarah Rutsen Schuyler and Philip Jeremiah Schuyler, oil on canvas, c. 1795, and Alida Livingston Rutsen Van Rensselaer, oil on canvas, 1796.

Phebe Sands’s portraits were fitted with replacement frames early in their history. T‌hese frames are later in style and a few inches too tall for both canvases. Previously, wooden inserts painted black to match the portraits’ backgrounds spanned the gap from the top of each canvas to the upper rabbet of each frame. Over time, as the color of the inserts faded and their size changed through cycles of expansion and contraction, they became more and more visually distracting. Because cutting down the frames would require altering their joinery, WACC conservator Hugh Glover instead devised two sets of toned inserts. T‌hese inserts run along the canvases’ upper and lower edges and mimic the frames’ patination. Although there is more to be discovered, the work of the last two semesters has helped me understand the portraits’ physical qualities and connect them to the broader issue of Monsieur Robert’s artistic practice. Curator Ellen Miles has noted that Robert’s work demonstrates a strong interest in individual sitters’ appearances as well as substantial knowledge of stylistic conventions. She further states, “T‌he portraits painted by this mysterious artist in New York in the 1790s are a new window into the relationship between patronage, politics, and artistic commissions in the new republic.”14 T‌hus, my experiences conserving and researching Robert’s portraits have allowed me to engage with their complexities on a number of different levels. In conclusion, the Lenett Fellowship and my time at WACC have provided a fruitful environment in which to strengthen my knowledge of conservation approaches and techniques.

Because I hope to pursue curatorial work in the future, the opportunity to follow treatments from beginning to end has proved invaluable. T‌he process has fostered a firmer connection between my interest in art’s physical and material qualities and my commitment to the ever-shifting field of art history. 1. By “Mr. Steward,” Schuyler likely means the American portraitist Gilbert Stuart. 2. Letter in Van Rensselaer Manor Papers, New York State Archives, Albany (SC 7079, Box 76). T‌his transcription has been edited for spelling and punctuation. 3. “Robert” is pronounced in the French manner: “ROH-bare.” T‌he artist is also referred to as “M. Robert” or simply “Robert.” 4. T‌he New York City Directory and Register for the Year 1795, published by William Duncan, lists the artist as “Robert, _________, portrait painter, 4 Wall [Street].” 5. Wilderstein was the countryseat of the Suckleys from 1852 to 1991. It features a nineteenthcentury mansion and grounds and an extensive library and archive documenting the full span of the Suckleys’ life in the Hudson River Valley. For more information, 6. T‌he history of Wilderstein began with Catherine Suckley’s son, T‌homas Holy Suckley, who purchased land along the Hudson and built a residence there in 1852. 7. Conversation with William Clutz, Volunteer at Wilderstein Historic Site, January 2010. 8. T‌he reverse of Robert’s oil portrait of Sarah Rutsen Schuyler features a monogram resembling one used by Vanderlyn. It is unclear when this monogram was added or whether it was intended to deceive. Schuyler Mansion files, Albany, New York. 9. Correspondence with Ellen Miles, Ph.D., Curator Emeritus, Department of Painting and Sculpture, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington D. C., April 2010. 10. Helen Wilkinson Reynolds, Dutchess County Doorways and Other Examples of Period-Work in Wood, 1730–1830 (New York: William Farquhar Payson, 1931), 208-9. 11. New York State Legislature, Joint Legislative Committee on Regulating Elections, “Certificate of Election, 1796,” New York State Archives, Albany (L0232). 12. Eliza Sands Bowne, quoted in Reynolds, Dutchess County Doorways, 209. 13. Michelle Vellucci, “Fire destroys historic Robert Sands home,” Poughkeepsie Journal, 11 March 1999, B1. 14. Correspondence with Ellen Miles, April 2010. Williamstown Art Conservation Center  |  15


The early evolution of the catcher’s mask. At top left, mask used by Louis Trauschke, Lawrence (Mass.) Base Ball Club, c. 1878; top right, Connie Mack’s “spider mask,” c. 1890; lower left, mask with hinged ear protectors used by George Moriarty, about 1900; and Moe Berg mask from the 1930s. 16  |  Art Conservator  |  Spring 2010

Form and Function in Cooperstown It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, Of all things physical and metaphysical, Of all things human and all things super-human, Of all true manifestations of the head, Of the heart, of the soul, T‌hat the life is recognizable in its expression, Form ever follows function. T‌his is the law. —Louis Sullivan


hen American architect Louis Sullivan wrote those words in 1896, he was addressing the issue of tall office buildings, not sporting goods. Yet nowhere is Sullivan’s quintessentially American pragmatism more evident than in the American pastime. Consider the basic baseball kit, a bat (a striking instrument tapered at the grip, widening at the zone of impact) and a glove (webbing to arrest a moving ball, padding to protect the hand). What could be more straightforward? And few things made by man conform more strictly to Sullivan’s dictum of functional form than the catcher’s mask. For the problem—an errant curveball ricocheting off the face—a solution: a cage of steel protecting the wearer without impeding his vision (too much). And since steel does not feel nice against the skin, particularly when bashed by a foul tip, leather padding is added at the pressure points for comfort. The catcher’s mask was devised at Harvard University in 1876. It was little more than a padded rat-cage tied to the head, and was not universally acclaimed. As one sports writer put it, “There is about as much sense in putting a lightning rod on a catcher as a mask.” Nevertheless, the invention caught on. From its humble beginnings, it proceeded immediately to evolve, as seen from fifteen early masks brought for treatment to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. The masks, from 1878 to 1933, represent more than a half-century of continual development. After function had dictated the basic form of the mask, input from the men behind the plate became the criteria for alterations. “The equipment evolved along with the game,” says Susan MacKay, Director of Collections at the Hall of Fame. “As injuries occurred, improvements to the mask followed.” By 1890, the protective cage had developed round eye openings for improved vision, inspiring its description as the “spider mask.”

Around 1900, the leather padding around the perimeter was laced for added movement and comfort, and hinged earpieces offered additional protection. By the 1930s, new configurations of the metal cage and enhancements to the padding resulted in a mask that looks familiar even to modern baseball fans. While today’s masks are increasingly made of molded plastic and resemble crash helmets, throughout most of their history they were made of more traditional materials. Steel cages gave way to lighter aluminum, horsehair padding and kapok to synthetic pads. One of the Williamstown masks, from c. 1910, is lined with sheep’s fleece. All these materials are subject to damage and deterioration, from perspiration, the environment, age, even their own manufacture. Some of the mask cages are dented, as if they had stopped a particularly wicked ball. Straps rot, copper rivets oxidize to a brilliant green, leather often weeps a white fatty spew caused by the additives used to tan or preserve it. Baseball is a repository of colorful history, much of it transmitted through its artifacts, which give off an aura of nearspiritual significance. The masks treated at the Center represent such honored names as George Moriarty and Moe Berg, but the most awe-inspiring of all was worn by Connie Mack in 1890, when he played for the Buffalo Bisons of the short-lived Players’ League. Mack, who is renowned in Major League lore as the longest-serving manager in history (fifty years with the Philadelphia Athletics), began his baseball career in 1886 as a sly and scrappy catcher. To contemplate the blunt utilitarianism of Mack’s headgear, with its spider-mask cage, brown ribbon strap and horsehair padding, is to slide head first into the essence of the game. Baseball is a simple sport of singular rules and unlikely grace, a pastime with no practical function, which often takes the most sublime form.

Williamstown Art Conservation Center  |  17

WACC News & Notes

Echoes of a fearsome history in a samauri suit of armor


t the dawn of the 17th century, the samurai, Japan’s warrior

panels and chain mail. The silk and brocade remained strong and

nobles, fell on hard times. It was then that the Tokugawa

visually stunning. Light had faded the coral red of the breastplate

shogun, the country’s ruling military dictator, united the

lacing, but the structural blue braid lacing was fully intact. There

country and ushered in what became known as the Edo period

is a long tradition of replacing these braids when they fail, but

(1603–1868), two hundred fifty years of peace and stability.

from their uniform appearance it appeared the braids were all

Samurai, who for centuries wielded their swords for the country’s

made at the same time, and are possibly even original.

emperors, were forced to serve as guards for regional lords, or

The suit of armor was surface cleaned overall. Extensive

trade their swords for plowshares and retire as farmers. Stripped

corrosion was reduced from the iron components, and lacquer

of their purpose in a tranquil age, the warrior caste evolved into a

losses were stabilized where needed and toned for color. A

hereditary class of aristocratic courtiers, bureaucrats and artists.

protective coating of microcrystalline wax was applied for

Their weapons, gear, and martial arts training

protection and surface reflectance. A missing leaf-shaped plate

were reduced to ritual symbols of power.

on the sode was cast in pigmented epoxy from a mold made

That’s the likely history of this Japanese

creased were gently humidified and reshaped. An internal

from the late 1600s or early 1700s. The style

scaffold of wood was constructed to support and present the suit

of construction and decoration suggest it is

for display. The armor has two traditional storage cases made of

from the Edo period, and there is no physical

red-painted wood with decorative hardware; these now serve

evidence it was ever used in battle. Even as a

as the base for the custom-made support. WACC will assist

symbolic object, however, the armor resonates

the owner, Mr. Robert Meiklejohn of Stamford, Connecticut, in

with the aura of a once-fearsome tradition.

obtaining a protective, ultraviolet-filtering vitrine to minimize

In keeping with its ceremonial function, the suit is aesthetically splendid. It has multiple components composed of a variety of traditional materials: iron alloy with a brown Suit of samurai armor from the Edo period, after treatment. Below, detail of helmet with face mask.

from one of the surviving plates. Textile components that were

suit of armor, which evidence indicates is

lacquer coating, cast composite wood with gilded and lacquered surface, silk braid, silk and metallic brocade, leather. The metal helmet, or katubo, has guards for the sides and back made of wood composite and suspended

in overlapping tiers with blue silk braid and horsehair. It is lined with red silk and has red cord ties. The half-face menpo, or face mask, has a smooth red lacquer coating on the interior. A bas-relief dragon decorates the center panel of the hinged breastplate (do), and the crest of the original owner is in gold lacquer on the front clasps. There are sleeves (kote) that cover down to the wearer's knuckles, and separate shoulder guards (sode) assembled from small, cast-iron plates shaped like leaves and laid like fish scales. There are also shin guards (suneate), foot covers, and an apron (haidate) to protect the wearer’s thighs. The armor came into the lab for cleaning and minor repairs. Lacquer coating on the iron components had been lost, most notably where dust had accumulated. These areas were exposed to the dust’s moisture and acidity, causing the lacquer to fail and the exposed metal to corrode. The fabric and braiding of the armor were in remarkably good condition, despite the fact that on some components they support the weight of iron 18  |  Art Conservator  |  Spring 2010

future light damage and dust accumulation. —Allison McCloskey

This early nineteenth-century desk and bookcase arrived at the WACC Department of Furniture and Wood Objects damaged by heat and soot from a house fire. Department head Hugh Glover removed the soot using a fine abrasive and an aqueous solution with chelating agents and a surfactant, then rinsed the surface with deionized water followed by mineral spirits. The decorative brass mount in the center of the cornice had conducted considerable heat and was severely blackened; it was restored with metal polishes, rinsed with acetone and brushed with a coat of protective toned lacquer. The English-style secretary, in rosewood and mahogany veneer, features handcarved glazing bars on the bookcase doors. The glass, which is original and shows the charming distortions of age, is shaped and fitted within the bars. After intense heat caused some of the panes to crack, the decision was made to repair the fractures with conservation epoxy rather than replace with new glazing. This privately owned desk and bookcase is nearly identical to one in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Both were made by William Alvord and John Meads, who worked together in Albany, New York, from 1824 to 1835. Meads, an English immigrant who apprenticed with Samuel Miller, had come to Albany in 1802. He and Alvord supplied elaborate, finely crafted furniture for many of the state’s most elite citizens, including U.S. Representative Solomon Van Rensselaer, railroad magnate Erastus Corning I, and Governor De Witt Clinton.

Early nineteenth-century desk and bookcase by Albany makers Alvord and Meads. Williamstown Art Conservation Center  |  19

WACC News & Notes

Painting opens a door to the many sides of an eclectic master


ho was Douglass Crockwell? Was he: a) a Depression-

the vexing irony, as did the fact that they each had prestigious

era painter of a heroic series called Men at Work; b)

advertising clients, in Crockwell’s case such popular companies

an innovative animator who pioneered cutting-edge animation techniques; c) a Rockwellesque illustrator for leading magazines

like Welch’s Grape Juice, General Electric, and Friskies. In the 1930s, Crockwell also tinkered with animated film,

and corporations; or d) the first director of the Hyde Collection

pioneering methods including clay stop-action animation

museum in Glens Falls, New York?

(without him, there may have been no Gumby or Wallace and

The answer is e) all of the above. In the course of a four-

Grommit). He spent the last half of his life working with Charlotte

decade career, Crockwell was an artistic ecumenicist, as

Hyde as she transformed her mansion and art collection into a

successful in easel painting and experimental cinema as he

museum. Mrs. Hyde died in 1963, after which Crockwell became

was in commercial art. Born in Ohio and educated in St. Louis,

the Hyde Collection’s first director, an “interim” position he held

he spent all his adult life in the small Adirondack city of Glens

from 1964 till his death in 1968.

Falls. There, he painted works that are now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and eventually came to oversee the house and art collection of Louis and Charlotte (Pruyn) Hyde. In the early 1930s, Crockwell was employed by the New Deal Federal Arts Project, and spent four years creating his epic Men at Work series, large paintings extolling American labor. The series included the 1934 man-as-machine portrait Paper Workers, the original of which is in the Smithsonian. The version seen here is a copy, with only minor modifications, made by Crockwell that same year for the owners of the mill it depicts, the Finch-Pruyn paper company in Glens Falls. Now owned by the Hyde Collection, the picture shows workers smoothing a roll of newsprint. The men appear carved from the same wood that makes the paper, and have become part of the vast machinery they service. The painting’s life must have been nearly as hard as that of the workers, for it came to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center with five patched tears concealed beneath a thick coat of linseed oil. Returning it to something like its original state was tricky. Chief paintings conservator Thomas Branchick could not easily remove the discolored linseed oil from the entire canvas, because in places Crockwell’s thin paint layers had become too fragile. To bring back the picture’s composition, removing nearly eighty percent of the linseed oil and considerably restoring the painting’s original sense of mass and drama. Crockwell made his living as a commercial illustrator during Norman Rockwell’s heyday. The rhyming echo of their names was a source of some distress for the man who signed his images simply “DC” to avoid comparisons. That both men were cover artists for the Saturday Evening Post added to 20  |  Art Conservator  |  Spring 2010

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Hoopes, The Hyde Collection

brightness, Branchick targeted the lighter areas of the

Douglass Crockwell, Paper Workers, 1934

WACC Staff

T‌homas Branchick Director; Conservator of Paintings/Dept. Head Mary Catherine Betz Associate Conservator of Paintings John Conzett Office Manager Matthew Cushman Assistant Conservator of Paintings; Analytical Science Hélène Gillette-Woodard Conservator of Objects/Dept. Head

Honolulu Academy of Arts

Self-Portrait, attributed to Remigio Cantagallina (c. 1582–1656), pen and brown ink. The drawing, seen here before treatment, shows overall discoloration and losses in lower right.

Honolulu Academy sends master drawings to WACC


awaii may be a paradise to live in or see, but it’s not necessarily the friendliest environment for European master drawings. While parts of the state are desert dry,

much of the large island of Oahu has a tropical climate of heat and high humidity, and is home to an array of paper-damaging pests. As part of the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ preparation for an upcoming exhibit of its Old Masters collection, a group of eighteen drawings were shipped nearly five thousand miles for treatment at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. The drawings, which include works by or attributed to Tiepolo, Watteau, Guilio Romano, and Carlo Maratta, represent a variety of traditional drawing mediums, including ink, graphite, chalk, and watercolor. The group also represents the conditions typical of such a challenging climate: the rust-like corrosion of iron gall ink, for instance, and the discoloration of foxing, brown spots that invade the paper surface as a result of fungal growth or oxidation. “A lot of the drawings were in particularly desperate need of conservation,” observes Theresa Papanikolas, Curator of European and American

Art at the Honolulu Academy. While the museum, founded in 1927, now has HVAC climate controls, Papanikolas said it was originally unconditioned, as were the homes of patrons whose works have entered the collection. Chief paper conservator Leslie Paisley, who herself lived in Honolulu for more than five years, proposed a treatment of cleaning, fills, and stabilization within the limits allowed by the paper and the media. “I avoid local treatments of stains or discoloration which could change the chemistry of the materials,” Paisley explained. “The treated section might look fine now, but would age unevenly and

Hugh Glover Conservator of Furniture and Wood Objects/Dept. Head Matthew Hamilton Photography Technician Terry Haskins Accounts Manager Rebecca Johnston Conservator of Paper Henry Klein Conservation Technician Montserrat Le Mense Conservator of Paintings Cynthia Luk Conservator of Paintings; International Projects Specialist Amanda Malkin Pre-Program Intern/Technician Allison McCloskey Assistant Conservator of Objects and Textiles Lauren McMullen Advanced Intern of Objects Adam Nesbit Assistant Conservator of Objects Leslie Paisley Conservator of Paper/Dept. Head Kathleen Payne de Chavez Assistant Conservator of Furniture and Wood Objects Amanda Turner Office Assistant Sandra Webber Conservator of Paintings

look worse sometime in the future.” It may not be possible to return the drawings to their original condition, nor is it desirable. Observed Papanikolas, the signs of age “are part of their history.” The exhibit is scheduled for 2012. Williamstown Art Conservation Center  |  21

WACC News & Notes

WACC’s new 200kV digital X-ray unit. The machine and X-ray room were purchased with funds from the Stockman Family Foundation.

Stockman Family Foundation funds new X-ray system The Williamstown Art Conservation Center recently received

An ancillary, fine-controlled tripod base allows for additional

two generous grants from the Stockman Family Foundation in its

flexibility. The digital-capture system includes PSP plates, a

continuing support of the Center’s radiographic services. WACC’s

14-inch ScanX scanner, a computer with 17-inch monitor, and

thirty-five year old, film-based, 110-kilovolt X-ray unit has been

Scanview software. The plate captures a radiographic image and

replaced with a 200-kilovolt digital Lorad system. The new machine

downloads it in minutes, allowing the conservators to assess the

will allow WACC to examine a larger spectrum of objects and

results almost instantaneously. This will speed up all aspects of

materials at lower, safer levels of radiation. The Stockman Family

the radiography process, with no handling of films or waiting

Foundation had previously funded the lead-lined X-ray room in

for off-site processing. The system scans, downloads, and

the Center’s new Stone Hill Center facility. The X-ray room, among

automatically erases the image, readying the plate for the next

the best in the Northeast, has a 250-300 kV capacity, allowing

use. The plate can be reused hundreds of times, and, due to its

WACC to examine large works in marble and bronze as well as

increased sensitivity, allows images to be made at much lower kV

bigger furniture pieces. With the purchase of the Lorad system, the

than the old system. The Scanview software, in conjuction with

Center now as a radiography machine equal to its room.

Photoshop, allows for corrective imaging as well as combining

The new system has a digital control box and is mounted on

multiple radiograph scans into a single image. WACC is one of the

a boom arm with movements along three axes, making multiple

few facilities in the Northeast that provides radiographic services

views of large paintings and objects much easier to accomplish.

to a broad range of clients.

Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art sent its Woman Reclining on Leopard Skin to WACC for cleaning and re-varnishing in preparation for the New York-based Neue Galerie’s exhibition Otto Dix, the first solo museum show of works by the German artist ever in North America. Dix (1891-1969) was a leader of a school of stark, often visually-brutal painters in Germany after World War I. Dix rejected German Expressionism’s psychological inscapes for depictions of a demimonde rendered in assaulting intensity. The painting, in oil and egg tempera and dated 1927, arrived in good shape, requiring only cosmetic treatment. The exhibit continues in New York through August 30, then moves, in expanded form, to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in September. 22  |  Art Conservator  |  Spring 2010

Tech Notes, Spring 2010

Historic Mercury Amalgam Mirrors: History, Safety and Preservation By Kathleen Payne de Chavez Large mirror-plates are now the indispensable ornaments of every large and sumptuous apartment; they diffuse luster and gayety round them, by reflecting the rays of light in a thousands lines, and by multiplying indefinitely the images of objects placed between opposite parallel planes. —Ure’s Dictionary (1856) History

While ancient civilizations, including the Romans, Mayans, and Egyptians, employed highly polished metal discs as mirrors, what we understand as a modern mirror, a glass with a reflective metal-foil backing, came into being sometime around the end of the 15th century. In Venice the development of cristallo, a transparent, colorless glass, gave Venetian glassmakers an advantage in the creation of high-quality mirrors with clear reflectance. Initially, some glassmakers poured a mirroring mixture of lead and antimony onto the surface of highly polished blown-glass plates, but this method yielded a rough surface with dim reflection. In the early 16th century, the Del Gallo glassmakers of the Venetian island of Murano improved the method by developing a mercury-tin amalgam technique for mirroring the glass surface. T‌his method deposited a thin layer of tin on the surface creating unparalleled reflectance. So revolutionary was this technique that the Republic of Venice forbade Muranese glassmakers from emigrating and taking their trade secrets to other regions. However, by the mid-seventeenth century some of these skilled craftsmen had escaped and brought the trade to France, and from there, the world. Despite the appearance of a competing mirror-making process, mercury-tin amalgam remained the predominant form of mirroring through the 19th century. Many of the lovely historic mirrors displayed in museums, historic houses, and private collections are mercurytin amalgam mirrors. With their beauty comes subtle deterioration over time, particular preservation issues, and a necessity for certain handling precautions as some mercury remains a part of the object. Figure 1


From Diderot Encyclopedia: The Complete Illustrations 1762–1777. Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers, 1978.

T‌hough small details may have varied and changed over time, the basic principles of the mercury-tin manufacturing process remained the same for four hundred years. [Fig. 1] T‌he historic mercury-tin amalgam mirroring process begins with a plate of clear glass. Originally molten glass was blown and spun into a cylinder that was cut into a rectangular sheet, yielding a plate no larger than four-by-two feet Williamstown Art Conservation Center  |  23

Figure 2

(1.22-by- 0.58 meters). With the advent of the glass-casting method in the lateseventeenth century, glassmakers achieved plates measuring up to nearly nine-byfive-feet (2.69-by-1.63 meters). T‌he glass was polished with a variety of successively finer abrasives to remove surface imperfections, a process originally done by hand, until, in the 1850s, machines were developed to grind and polish the surfaces of the plates. A piece of thin tin foil, slightly larger than the glass plate, was brushed onto the surface of a very smooth, lipped table, typically made of marble. Using brushes and what Ure’s Dictionary described as “woollen stuff,” liquid mercury was applied to the surface of the foil. T‌he tin dissolved into the mercury to form a mercury-tin alloy or amalgam. Corrosion products and impurities were removed from the surface using brushes or linen cloths. T‌he glass plate was carefully lowered into place in one smooth motion, taking care not to tear the foil. Glassmakers then placed heavy weights on the glass to achieve intimate contact between glass and amalgam. T‌he table was adjusted to a slight incline, allowing excess mercury to pour off. T‌he newly formed mirror was then transferred to a wooden drying table, which could be progressively tilted a bit each day, for a period of eighteen to thirty days, until the mirror was completely vertical. At this point, most excess mercury was drained off or evaporated. T‌he tin-foil sheet was trimmed, and the back of the mirror was sometimes varnished or painted to protect the metallic layer. Structure/deterioration

T‌he foil used in the fabrication of historic mirrors is predominantly tin but may be an alloy containing small percentages of lead, antimony or copper. T‌he reflective amalgam of a mercury-tin mirror consists of tin-rich metallic crystals with a mercury-rich liquid phase filling the voids between the crystals. T‌he mercury combined with the tin forms an unstable binary alloy, generally in a proportion of approximately seventyfive percent tin and twenty-five percent mercury. Ingenious as this mercury-tin amalgam method is, it is also inherently unstable. Over time, the liquid phase migrates to the bottoms of mirrors displayed vertically, mercury evaporates out of the amalgam, and the solid phase crystals grow and corrode. T‌he concentration of excess mercury can cause damage along the lower portions of mirrors. Corrosion of the metallic solid phase results in the loss of the characteristic reflectance in affected areas, and the release of liquid mercury, which migrates and evaporates. Not all historic mirrors were made with the mercury-tin amalgam process. In 1835, German chemist Justus von Liebig developed a chemical method of depositing metallic silver on glass. Mercury-tin mirrors and silvered mirrors have a somewhat similar appearance, and co-existed until the silvering process won out in the early-twentieth century. Distinguishing between the two processes can be challenging. Upon close examination, one will note that the historic glass of 24  |  Art Conservator  |  Spring 2010

both types of mirrors is generally thicker than modern glass and is often darker in tonality. A thin piece of white paper placed over an historic mirror will generally appear brighter over a silvered mirror than a mercury-tin amalgam mirror. As their metal mirroring-layer corrodes, silvered mirrors develop the warm, yellow-brown tone associated with tarnishing, while mercury-tin mirrors adopt the bluish color of tin oxides. Silvered mirrors were almost always varnished or painted to protect the readily tarnished silver, while mercury-tin mirrors generally were only painted or varnished for use in humid areas and at sea. A less-definitive indication of a mercury-tin mirror may be a tendency for a higher concentration of deterioration along the lower half of the mirror, caused by the migrating mercury. [Fig. 2] T‌his deterioration creates holes of mirroring loss and a darkened, speckled appearance where the spaces between the metallic crystals become larger and more visible. [Fig. 3]

Figure 3


Mercury is an acutely toxic substance, and mercury vapor readily enters the bloodstream when inhaled. From the lungs it is carried in the red blood cells to all the tissues of the body. In high concentrations, mercury can severely damage the lungs, brain, and kidneys. Its toxicity has been recognized since antiquity, and the Renaissance physician Paracelsus noted that the dose of exposure is crucial for determining whether mercury can aid in the curing of a disease or become a poison itself. Mercury vapor and its effects on the human body have been studied extensively due to the use of mercury amalgams in dentistry for the filling of cavities, and for the establishment of occupational hazard standards for those who work with mercury professionally. As early as 1713, the ill effects of mercury vapor on professionals, including mirror-makers, were well known: “At Venice on the Island called Murano where huge mirrors are made, you may see these workers gazing with reluctance and scowling at the reflection of their own sufferings in their mirrors and cursing the trade they have adopted.” (Ramazinni, Disease of Workers, quoted in Clarkson) Fortunately for most museum professionals or collectors, mercury-amalgam mirrors are not a serious source of mercury vapor and are thus not considered a health hazard. When Danish conservator Per Hadsund tested rooms covered from floor to ceiling with amalgam mirrors for mercury vapor content, he found them to be well below acceptable safety-limit levels. In the case of amalgam mirrors, the movement of liquid mercury is the greater potential health risk. Liquid mercury can bead up in the bottom edge of a mirror frame between the mirror glass and the backing board or dust cover. Dust or debris that comes into contact with the liquid mercury must be treated as mercury waste. Vacuums should never be used in the removal of the accumulated liquid mercury or dust from these objects, as this can result in mercury vapor being released into Williamstown Art Conservation Center  |  25

the air. When considering the removal of a backing board or dust cover from an amalgam mirror, it is always best to seek professional conservation assistance. Preservation

Mercury-tin amalgam mirrors are lovely historic artifacts and are often housed in gorgeous gilded wooden frames. It is a truly worthwhile endeavor to invest time and resources in their preservation. As inherently unstable objects, they have a finite lifespan, but a controlled environment and careful handling can go a long way to add to their longevity. Many have survived for several hundred years, and when properly cared for will outlive their caretakers, perhaps even last another two to three hundred years. T‌he amalgam is an ever-changing material. It is fragile and its reflective properties depend on the co-existence of both the liquid and solid phases of the amalgam. It can be tempting to flip a mirror in which much of the liquid mercury has gathered along the bottom portion, but this would only cause further damage by flooding the drier crystalline areas with the liquid, resulting in additional, highly unpredictable consequences. Care should be taken to keep the mirror in its original orientation, and an amalgam mirror, frame or no, should always be handled with the

hands protected in nitrile, vinyl or other appropriate gloves. T‌his protects the user from the mercury in the object and the object from the corrosive salts on the skin. Of critical importance for the preservation of mercury-tin amalgam mirrors is an environment with stable temperature and relative humidity. Lower temperatures slow the chemical reactions and rate of change of the amalgam.1 A lower relative humidity environment is ideal but can be difficult to accommodate if the mirror is housed in a wooden frame.2 It is important to keep the verso of the mirror free of dust, debris and spider webs that can trap and hold moisture and corrosive salts to the surface of the amalgam layer. A paper or closely woven fabric dust cover adhered across the back of the frame beneath the original wooden backing boards can prevent dust accumulation and insect nesting against the fragile surface. If you notice any changes or deterioration on an historic mirror in your collection and have questions about its long-term preservation, contact a trained conservator for additional information.

1. T‌he low temperature limit for amalgam mirrors is 18.5F (-7.5C), while the high temperature limit is 136.4F (58C). (Hadsund 1992) 2. Gilded wooden frames tend to be stable at a relative humidity set point anywhere between 40 percent and 55 percent, with fluctuations of no more than ±5 percent around this set point.

References Clarkson, Thomas. 2002. “The Three Modern Faces of Mercury,” in Environmental Health Perspectives. 110 (1): 11-23. Hadsund, Per. 1992. “The tin-mercury mirror: its manufacturing technique and deterioration processes,” in Studies in Conservation. 38: 3-16. Herrera, L.K. et. al. 2008. “Studies of deterioration of the tin-mercury alloy within ancient Spanish mirrors,” in Journal of Cultural Heritage. 9: e41-e46. Ramazinni B. 1964. Disease of Workers. 1713. Reprint (Wright WC, transl ). New York: Hafner Publishing Co. [Quoted in Clarkson, 2002] Ure, Andrew, M.D. 1856. A Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines; containing a clear exposition of their principles and practice, Vol. DIV. III. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Kathleen Payne de Chavez, Assistant Conservator of Furniture and Wood Objects, completed her B.A. at the University of Delaware in Art Conservation with a minor in Spanish Language in 2004. Prior to working on her Masters, she interned in the Morris Library Preservation Unit, Winterthur Museum (Paintings Conservation and Analytical Laboratories) and Belmont Hills Art Conservation Studios. She obtained her M.S. degree with a focus in Objects and Preventive Conservation from the Winterthur University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation in 2008. Ms. Payne de Chavez has a special interest in the treatment of painted, varnished, and gilded surfaces, and has completed internships at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Intermuseum Conservation Association, the Santa Teresa Monastery Museum (Arequipa, Peru), and in the recovery of historic works from Beauvoir and the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum (Biloxi, MS) after Hurricane Katrina.

26  |  Art Conservator  |  Spring 2010

Members of the Consortium


Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art,

The Rockwell Museum of

Art Conservation Center 227 South Street, Williamstown,

Cornell University —Ithaca, NY

Western Art —Corning, NY

MA 01267

Historic Deerfield, Inc. Deerfield, MA

Roland Gibson Gallery, State

Addison Gallery of American Art,

Hood Museum of Art,

University of New York —Potsdam, NY

Phillips Academy —Andover, MA

Dartmouth College —Hanover, NH

St. Johnsbury Athenaeum —St. Johnsbury, VT

Albany Institute of History and Art —Albany, NY

The Hyde Collection —Glens Falls, NY

Springfield Library and Museums

Alice T. Miner Colonial Collection —Chazy, NY

The Lawrenceville School —Lawrenceville, NJ

The Arkell Museum —Canajoharie, NY

Mead Art Museum,

Arnot Art Museum —Elmira, NY

Amherst College —Amherst, MA Memorial Art Gallery,

Art Complex Museum —Duxbury, MA

University of Rochester —Rochester, NY

Atlanta Historical Society, Inc. —Atlanta, GA

Middlebury College Museum of Art —Middlebury, VT

Bennington Museum —Bennington, VT

Mount Holyoke College Art Museum —South Hadley, MA

Berkshire Museum —Pittsfield, MA

Munson Williams Proctor Arts

Bowdoin College Museum of Art —Brunswick, ME Charles P. Russell Gallery,

Institute —Utica, NY Museum of Connecticut History —Hartford, CT

of works of art and objects of

Morris Foundation —Lenox, MA

cultural interest; to participate in the

Tioga Point Museum —Athens, PA Union College —Schenectady, NY

the profession.

disseminate knowledge to advance

Williams College Museum of Art —Williamstown, MA

Booth Western Art Museum —Cartersville, GA

Norman Rockwell Museum at

Brenau University —Gainesville, GA

Frederic Remington Art Museum —Ogdensburg, NY

the issues pertinent to collections

Alliance —Shelburne, VT

Collection —Albany, NY

Vassar College —Poughkeepsie, NY

the importance of conservation and increase the awareness of

Vermont Museum and Gallery

Alabama Historical Commission —Montgomery, AL

Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center

training of conservators; to promote

Vermont Historical Society —Montpelier, VT

Services, Empire State Plaza Art

Fort Ticonderoga —Ticonderoga, NY

respect to the care and conservation

care; and to conduct research and

New York State Office of General

The Farnsworth Art Museum —Rockland, ME

for member institutions, and for

Suzy Frelinghuysen and George L.K.

Atlanta, GA 30341

Book Art —Amherst, MA

and related conservation services

conduct educational programs with

New Hampshire Historical Society —Concord, NH

Eric Carle Museum of Picture

of our cultural heritage; to provide

corporations, and individuals; to

Atlanta Art Conservation Center 6000 Peachtree Road

College —Lynchburg, VA

examination, treatment, consultation

Sterling and Francine Clark Art

of New York —Purchase, NY

The Daura Gallery at Lynchburg

non-profit institution, is to protect,

conserve and maintain the objects

Institute —Williamstown, MA

The Cheney Homestead of the

Connecticut Historical Society —Hartford, CT

he mission of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, a

other non-profit organizations,

Neuberger Museum,

Colby College Museum of Art —Waterville, ME


Association —Springfield, MA

Deerfield Academy —Deerfield, MA Manchester Historical Society —Manchester, CT

Mission Statement

Purchase College, State University

Stockbridge —Stockbridge, MA Picker Art Gallery,

Columbia Museum of Art —Columbia, SC

Colgate University —Hamilton, NY

The Columbus Museum —Columbus, GA

Portland Museum of Art —Portland, ME

High Museum of Art —Atlanta, GA

Preservation Society of Newport

Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts —Montgomery, AL

County —Newport, RI Rhode Island School of Design

Morris Museum of Art —Augusta, GA

Museum of Art —Providence, RI

Telfair Museum of Art —Savannah, GA

Williamstown Art Conservation Center  |  27

28  |  Art Conservator  |  Spring 2010

C han g e S er v ice R e q uested

W illiamstown , M A 0 1 2 6 7

2 2 7 Sout h St r e e t

C e nt e r

W illia m s town A r t C on s e r v ation

art C onser v ator

p e r m it # 3 7 0



U . S . P o s tag e


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