February 7, 2010
Charleston, South Carolina
Portrait Perfect
Henry Middleton Rutledge Restored

 By Wevonneda Minis
The portrait hanging in the dining room of the house museum needed work. Layers of varnish and paint were lifting up from its surface. The piece had great historic and sentimental value. Yet, when it comes to the deterioration that happens to fine art over time, no work of art gets a pass. If the portrait of Henry Middleton Rutledge (1775-1844), son of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Henrietta Middleton Rutledge, was to be preserved for future generations to see, it would have to be restored.
It was during a tour of the house by the board of the Chicago Botanic Gardens last spring that Sally Duell, Middleton Place Foundation chairwoman, mentioned the painting's need for restoration. A visiting board member suggested that the portrait, which Elise Pinckney, a descendant of Rutledge, donated to the foundation in 2007, might be a candidate for pro bono restoration by Barry Bauman, a retired conservator in Chicago. "We wanted to get the portrait restored almost from the day we received it," says Tracey Todd, vice president of museums for the foundation. "We don't have professional conservators at Middleton, but our museum staff recognized that it needed some work. We were trying to prioritize how we spend our limited budget.
"It was not hard for me to decide that Bauman was the right person to do the restoration after reading his resume and talking to him on the phone. The fact that he is retired now and wants to contribute back in this way is incredible." Bauman has done pro bono work for nonprofit organizations since retiring from the Art Institute of Chicago six years ago and was happy to restore the portrait, whose artist is unknown. Middleton family tradition holds that the portrait could have been painted by Rembrandt Peale. Bauman, however, thinks it is painted in the style of another artist, Thomas Sully. "It is unsigned and so we really don't know, but the artist was a master painter," Bauman says. "He was able to catch the essence of the soul."

Before Treatment

After Treatment
Ensuring that the essence remains for at least the next three or four generations to see required several steps. First, Bauman removed the dirt and yellowed varnish. Then, he put a new canvas on the back of the old one using a technique that would consolidate the two and result in a stronger canvas. He carefully mixed paint on top of gesso and filled in the color that had flaked off. He then applied a nonyellowing varnish. Normally restoring a painting such as this would have cost around $6,000, says Bauman, who passed along costs of about $700 to the foundation. The conservator of 40 years had previously visited Middleton and admired its artifacts. "Ownership of works of art is a responsibility. Middleton understood that responsibility by taking care of this painting for the future," he says.
Many individuals who own art they want restored will contact Catherine Rogers, a professional conservator for 23 years. Unprofessional restorations of fine art can introduce a number of problems, says Rogers, whose studio is in Charleston and whose previous employers include the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. "Unfortunately, in the Southeast there has been a lack of trained professional art conservators over the years, and previous restorations may have introduced problems," Rogers says. She often finds paintings that have been overcleaned and stripped of details the artists intended to be part of a painting. In other cases, an untrained person has spruced up a piece to hide a structural problem that only became worse with time. "It's sometimes possible to reduce the damage done, but then what you have is a conservator's improvement or enhancement, versus an original work of art," she says. The length of time a piece remains in a conservator's studio depends on the difficulty of the project and the conservator's workload. Not all pieces that appear to need a lot of work on the surface actually do. "Sometimes, removal of grime makes a dramatic difference and it's possible to see that the varnish layer is still adequate and can be left in place. The objective is to leave as much of the artist intent as possible." Rogers says that cleaning and minor structural repair might take two to three months. Lining the canvas for a new substrate could involve keeping the piece in the studio for six months. If there are a lot of canvas distortions and puckerings, the work could take much longer. Typically, conservators charge about $100 to $150 an hour, Rogers says.
"There is a growing trend of recognizing that we, as private individuals, are in some ways as responsible as institutions might be to serve as curators of our past," says John Sands, a former museum curator at Colonial Williamsburg. "And over the years, perhaps, people have become somewhat more aware of the risks of improper care by well-meaning, but unskilled conservators." Whether that is from public education efforts by museums over the past 30 years or the influence of the program "Antiques Road Show" is unclear, he says. "Before anyone engages in a restoration project, they should ask a lot questions," Sands says. "They should try to have a broad understanding of what appropriate methods might be. If they can't build a level of confidence, they should wait. In most instances, more damage can be done by bad restorations than by waiting."



Barry Bauman Conservation
Contact: Mr. Barry Bauman
1122 N. Jackson Ave., River Forest, IL. 60305
Ph.(708)771-0382  Fax.(708)771-1532