Keepers Of History

Photography by Stephanie Oberlander

Photography by Stephanie Oberlander

In 1749, when most Colonists were scrabbling for the most basic food and shelter, two of Yorktown’s finest sat with elegance and understatement to have their portraits made. William Nelson was a wealthy merchant; his wife, Elizabeth, a woman of prestigious heritage. Their son Thomas would go on to sign the Declaration of Independence.

The painter was Robert Feke, the first native-born American artist of European descent and the foremost American portraitist of the era. His strokes were dramatic and masterful. The satins were flowing and sleek, the flesh nearly alive. The piercing eyes peered out at the viewer.

The portraits survived the Revolutionary War, when the city was the center of relentless battles. Eighty years later, when the Civil War threatened Yorktown, they were spirited away in a wagon to Richmond for safekeeping.

This was not good for the paintings.

Neither was the soot from the wood fires used to heat and light the home, nor the changes in weather, nor the series of artists over the years who “restored” the portraits by painting over Feke’s original brush strokes, changing the colors of the clothing and the shape of William Nelson’s hairline and head. Two and a half centuries later the Nelsons were barely visible.

Then one day, in Williamsburg, their eyes gazed out once again.

The Feke paintings are two of the thousands of artifacts that are preserved and protected by a world-renowned, CSI-like team of curators and conservators there who combine training, technology and experience to read the evidence of objects. Silver vessels, dresses and documents, coins and guns, fragments of pottery, and the maps that pre-Colonial explorers used to describe – and sell – the New World to the Old Country: Each has its own story to tell, and each needs its own delicate treatment.

They get it inside the DeWitt Wallace Collections and Conservation building, where artisans and preservation scientists work in eight high- and low-tech conservation labs to find and tell our history. Eighteenth century-style chisels hang near a tool like a ray gun that breaks down the chemical composition of the smallest of paint chips. A high-powered microscope sits next to jars of the obscure plant materials that were crushed or distilled into pigments by artists hundreds of years dead. There are X-rays and X-ray fluorescence, microscopy and infrared light spectroscopy. The same technologies used in medicine are used here to understand the materials that went into our history and how they were put together to create the necessities and frivolities of early American life.

Wielding the tools and technologies is a team of some of the most talented scientist-artists in the country. They’re wood workers and musicians, potters and painters, educated in chemistry and materials science and steeped in history.

“It’s not the kind of work a lot of people can do,” says Ron Hurst, chief curator and vice president of collections, conservation and museums. “It requires an enormous ability to focus, sometimes for days.”

Hurst came to Colonial Williamsburg as associate curator of furniture in 1983. He is a world expert on Southern American furniture. Before he became the man in charge of everything he was curator of furniture, responsible for about 3,000 British and American pieces. He co-wrote a book about them filled with details about whether the wood was local or brought in on one of the ships that sailed up the York and the James. He can tell you why one type of joint would have been used over another, and why the craftsman chose the wood.

Now he’s responsible for two museums, 90 historic buildings and their furnishings, nearly 60,000 pieces of art and roughly 60 million archaeological artifacts. If there’s something in the Colonial Williamsburg art collection it’s because Hurst recognized its value. The same goes for each person working there, as well as for the building.

Built in 1997, the Collections and Conservation building is a square donut, the storage in the center monitored for humidity and temperature and the light that will damage artifacts. Each lab is specific to its purpose, with reverse air flow hoods for doing the work of chemistry and wide tables where a woman’s dress or a man’s wig or a British uniform can be laid flat for cleaning and repair. There’s a lab where the battle of decay between the wood and metal of muskets is ended, and where what look like stones are cleaned to reveal Colonial coins. There’s an archaeology lab where every nail and corrosion-covered hammer is X-rayed and evaluated to help on-site archaeologists figure out what was used where and why.

Before the building was built, the conservation labs were scattered around Williamsburg, but now the paintings conservator can step down the hall and help the instruments conservator figure out how to remove paint from piano keys, and furniture conservator Chris Swan and director of conservation David Blanchfield can spend weeks figuring out the construction logistics of rebuilding an entire painted room inside the folk art museum. They collaborate often and well, each obsessed with historical accuracy. Each stitch, each brush stroke, each cut is as close to historically accurate as the conservators can make it.

“I tell people it took me 20 years to find someone to pay me to be compulsive,” says Blanchfield, who built houses and cabinetry and musical instruments before going back for his master’s degree so he could come to Colonial Williamsburg.

The foundation’s conservators’ work is known worldwide. When other major museums need something fixed they often call here. When the State Department needs to understand something about its imposing collection of art, it calls Hurst. When Mount Vernon needed the easy chair used by George Washington’s mother conserved, the staff sent it to upholstery conservator Leroy Graves.

“If we can’t figure it out within this group,” Blanchfield says, “maybe it can’t be figured out.”

The conservators’ compulsivity gives them the nerve to work on things that are priceless — priceless either because they’d be stunningly expensive on the open market or because they’re rare and wonderful, like the telescope Blanchfield worked on years ago that had belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

That same obsession with accuracy goes into conserving the ladderback chair from an indentured worker’s kitchen, too. Each piece, regardless of the pedigree of its user,nice is an artifact from the past, and as such tells our story. Because of that, the staff’s motto is “first do no harm.” That wasn’t always the case. Forty years ago, painting over something like the Fekes portraits was the norm, the thing that was done to keep paintings fresh and pretty. So was tearing out the working guts of a piano to make it play again, or trashing the horsehair stuffing and upholstery you’d just pulled off a chair. The problem is that each subsequent “treatment,” as they’re called in the business, destroys some of the original, and it is that destruction that the people on the front lines of historical preservation are now determined to stop.

Shelley Svoboda is the one who uncovered Mr. and Mrs. Nelson. One part chemist, one part historian and one part artist, she is intensely patient and focused. It’s her job to understand and undo the effect of time and neglect on each of the materials that make up a painting – the tacking to the wooden frame that warps the weave of the canvas, the pigments and the binders, the chemical makeup of the varnish and former fixes. Somehow she must remove those without hurting the original paint, whether using chemicals or a scalpel and a microscope, painstakingly picking off one fleck at a time.

She starts with the tiniest of biopsies, a core that allows an analysis of each chemical component so she can create the corresponding cleaning system.

“Every brush load has a different chemistry, and the fact they’re layered over different material layers makes analysis some of the most difficult true chemistry work known,” she says.

Svoboda uses the size of the pieces of pigment of a paint to determine when it was made and which minerals and plant materials were used to make them, and thus what she can use to remove or preserve them. She reads crackle patterns to figure out which paint is newer and which older, and thus what should stay and what should go. She knows which varnishes are safest and provide the best protection. She works on the north side of the building because it gets the best light, and chooses her clothing so its color doesn’t reflect onto the art and distort what she sees.

Even after all of her formal training and 20 years of experience, she says, she continues to marvel that painters of the past found or created the materials they needed to convey a message, and she does all she can to respect their work and return it to a condition that lets it be shared.

“That’s the ultimate goal, to have the artist from 1749 still carry his communication successfully,” she says, “and to have Mr. Nelson still able to make eye contact with the visitor.”

Down the hall, John Watson, curator and conservator of musical instruments, is surrounded by keyboards in and out of their cases. There’s an early 19th century square piano, oft-restored and in perfect working condition. There’s an Austrian-style piano, elaborately carved and painted. He touches each as he tells its story, who made it, who owned it, where it sat in relation to the light from the windows or the sooty wood stove. Others are across the hall in the storage area, protected from dust and humidity and insects, the things that ruin wood.

One of the oldest was built by a German man named Zumpe. In 1766 he was building pianos in England. The transition from harpsichord to pianoforte – from plucking harplike strings with a quill to banging them with a hammer – had begun just 16 years before, and he had become skilled at shaping the wood and wrapping the felt, carving the keys and twisting the strings, and at least one of the primitive pianos bearing his name would make it to the New World. Something newer and better would follow it, though, and soon his piano would sit unplayed, rarely making the splinky sound that fell so quickly out of fashion.

“The thing is a wreck,” Watson says. “Half the hammers are gone, the ivory on the keys is gone, most of the strings are gone and there are lots of splits in the wood, but the thing that’s interesting is that such an early piano wasn’t played very long. It wasn’t worth restoring so no one ever fixed it up, so it’s all original. Can you imagine how difficult it is to find something like this?”

Further, there’s evidence that one just like it was played in the Apollo room at the Raleigh Tavern in 1771. So what to do? Do you make it playable again, in the process destroying a piece of history?

As with all such decisions at the foundation, it came only after weeks of discussion among curators and conservators. Instead of destroying the piece, Watson made a nearly perfect reproduction, working not from plans or measurements taken off a similar piece in some museum but from the untouched original, the old and the new side by side. He put his micrometer on one and then turned and put it on the other to make sure every measurement matched. He did a fiber analysis and thread count on the fragments of fabric underneath the keys. He reproduced tuning pins and spun strings. Now, instead of being fragile and gazed on from a distance, its duplicate is back in the Apollo room being played for visitors curious about how music sounded back when the country was founded.

Some of the original instruments in the collection are so fragile or rare that they’re never touched. Some are limited to being played only half an hour a year. Some, like the harpsichord in the Governor’s Palace, have their original sound boards and cases but reproduction keyboards and mechanical parts — the originals safely stored for later study.

“An object is a recording device,” Watson says, “so through the whole process it’s recording information about how it was made — in tool marks, in choice of alloys, in the way the glue runs go inside a piece of furniture, there is a huge amount of information. Then from the day it was finished until today it’s recording how it’s being used, where it’s being put, how people feel about it. It’s not just a piano, it’s a primary document. And the more I do to restore it, the more I’m obscuring that record of the past.”

Farther down the hall, Leroy Graves, the upholstery conservator, stands before an elaborate sofa. Its fabric is gone and every inch of its frame is sealed in Reynolds Wrap. Underneath the shiny foil the 250-year-old wood edges look as if they’ve been hit with buckshot from centuries of being reupholstered, and Graves is not going to do anything to make them worse.

He started at Colonial Williamsburg as a maintenance man at a time when African Americans couldn’t get the good jobs. He got promoted to furniture handler, packing up artifacts and moving them from lab to lab or out to the museums and historic buildings. On his lunch hour he’d watch the New York upholsterers who would come down in the summer and re-cover historic pieces. Back then they’d throw away the old horsehair and rushes and fabric and put as many holes in the wood as it took to make a piece look good, and that bothered him.

Eventually his informal apprenticeship there earned him a spot in the furniture lab, and when a dedicated upholstery lab was built he moved there, where he became one of the best at picking fabric fragments out of nail holes and figuring out what had covered the piece originally. But the nail damage still bugged him. Each time there would be more nails and thus more holes in the wood.

“Throw in hundreds more and you bring the piece even closer to splinterdom,” he says.

So he proposed creating a way to make the pieces show-worthy without nails. While you’re at it, his boss said, make the system removable, too.

Graves’ first version used linen as a base for upholstery, which was fine until a woman sat on it so her husband could take a photo and fell straight through.

Museum guests are not supposed to sit on the artifacts, but the system obviously needed to be rigid, just in case.

What Graves eventually created was a copper cap, each piece custom-made to fit snugly over the wood. He then hot-glued the upholstery to that. No more nails, no more holes.”

Graves’ system is now the industry standard, used in museums all over the world, including in the White House, which added an additional challenge: it had to be sit-able. Graves made it happen.

The original system was designed to fit over bare wood, though, which meant pieces of original upholstery still had to be removed. They were now stored carefully rather than being thrown away, but the piece of history was still less intact. So Graves devised a system that would allow the existing cloth and horsehair and edge-stiffening bundles of dried rushes – picked only in certain swamps and only in July – to remain.

Thus the foil-wrapped sofa.

Even in this undignified state it’s elegant, with its sweeping arms and arched back. But to shape sheets of copper to follow its curves would be to make it unmovably heavy, so Graves invented another option. Once he is absolutely confident the foil has no leaks or tears, he will cover it with linen and paint on a layer of epoxy, one section at a time, and let it cure. Then he’ll trim the layers and sand them and cover them with more linen anywhere they’re likely to touch wood. For the back he’ll cut a piece of foam that’s just a hint too big so it will stay put because of friction.

“What Leroy does is a simple metaphor for what we do,” says John Watson, the musical instruments conservator. “He’s giving the impression of turning back the clock, of bridging that gap to the foreign country that is the past. The piece looks like a freshly reupholstered object, but he’s using all kinds of trickery to get the restoration done with almost no loss of evidence.”

The foundation’s goal is to preserve the props of our history and use them to educate people, now and in the future, about the past.

“You can get to the point in museum work where you want to wrap things up and put them away, but we don’t do that here,” says Blanchfield. “This is a national treasure, this place, and these things belong to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation but also to the American people. We want them to be seen.”

Originally published in , April 18, 2012

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