I just arrived home this weekend from my first Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum, and I’m starting to recover from the sensory overload. It just happened to be the most beautiful weekend here in Southern California. It’s almost as if the weather gods were making a conscious effort to highlight the benefits of living here, knowing that I’d return home from Virginia with a partial desire to drop everything and move back east where the antiques are.
The conference did seem at times to be an eerily on-the-mark sales pitch, tailor-made to talk me into relocation. I met people from all up and down the east coast, around the south, and even a few from the midwest—several of whom had recently retired in and around Williamsburg to be closer to the historic area. Well doesn’t that sound like a fabulous plan? Sign me up. As for the lectures, they were all wonderful (and quite varied in topics), but I thought I’d share with you some thoughts on a few particular favorites, in no particular order.
Carolyn J. Weekley, Painters and Paintings in the Early American South. This lecture accompanied a relatively new exhibition in the DeWitt Wallace galleries (Colonial Williamsburg’s decorative arts museum). Having read Carolyn’s book of the same title in preparation for my trip, I got a lot more out of both the exhibit and the lecture. In the book, she discusses a wide range of paintings, from early European depictions of native towns, to pre-Audubon natural history studies, to portraits of the growing upper and middling classes in the early south. Portraits (the focus of her lecture) were by far the most popular and abundant type of painting in early America, as in England. Southern clients made use of a wide array of portrait painters, from local talent (those trained as portrait artists as well as those trained in sign/coach/house painting looking to broaden their offerings), to itinerant painters in search of new commissions, to foreign masters working abroad or their students arriving back in the colonies.
A longtime fan of northern portrait artists John Singleton Copley and Ralph Earl, I enjoyed learning some new names I hadn’t previously been exposed to. My favorite was Henry Benbridge, whose striking portrait of Charlotte Pepper Gignilliat was understandably chosen as the cover art for both the exhibit and the book. (Side note: check out this story of someone finding a portrait miniature by Benbridge in the dirt on her property!) However, it never ceases to amaze me how even modern photographic and printing technology simply cannot replicate the experience of seeing a painting in person. While reading Carolyn’s book, I didn’t pick up on Benbridge as a particular favorite. It wasn’t until I saw the exhibit for myself that his paintings jumped out at me as beautifully realistic, sensitive, and vibrant—despite the awkward and unexplained head proportions of Mr. and Mrs. William Boswell Lamb. In the end though, I hope southern art enthusiasts won’t begrudge me this confession: the highlight of the exhibit for me was seeing John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Henry Laurens, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery. It was painted just after Laurens’s release from imprisonment in the Tower of London during the American Revolution (he was exchanged for General Lord Cornwallis). I’m not sure if it’s just me projecting, but I feel a sense of discomfort and unease in the picture. No doubt it took some time for Laurens to readjust after spending 15 months in prison. The portrait, like most by Copley, is beyond magnificent.
Shelley Svoboda, Behind the Scenes, Beneath the Layers: Conservation of Southern Paintings. This lecture was enthralling. Who doesn’t love a great before-and-after comparison? Whether it’s the makeover of a boring living room on HGTV, or the professional restoration of a precious 18th century portrait, we love to bear witness to a dazzling transformation. Even better is a glimpse behind the scenes to see how it’s done. Shelley Svoboda shared some captivating stories of how she and her team salvage antique paintings from the ravages of time, environment, and less careful or talented restoration “experts” that have come before them.
Shelley worked on many of the paintings now installed in Painters and Paintings in the Early American South. She shared some particular examples with us, including the astonishing restoration of Robert Feke’s portraits of William and Elizabeth Nelson, which had suffered from poorly done overpainting in an earlier restoration. In particular, Mrs. Nelson’s face and right hand had been overpainted so crudely that they masked Feke’s skill, obscuring completely his original artwork. With careful removal of the overpainted areas, Shelley and her team were able to get down to what was left of the original paint. Using this remaining paint as a guide—as well as careful comparison with other related portraits by the artist—they were able to fill in only the areas where color was actually missing, and not over any of Feke’s original paint. In another example, an early game of lawn bowling was uncovered in the background of a portrait! It had been completely painted over during a previous “restoration.” Who knows what other details like this have been lost to the over-zealous or uninformed “restorations” of the past? With the use of reversible techniques, copious documentation, and a minimalist approach to restoration, modern conservators like Shelley are on a mission to make sure that the art of the past will be well-preserved for the future. (For more on the chemistry of conservation, check out this article on Shelley and her chemist colleague from the College of William and Mary)
Stay tuned for more lecture highlights in Part II…
And check out my new Pinterest board on 18th c. portraits