Turning back the clock

Paul Sparkes
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Night becomes day as art conservator works her magic

It is amazing what treasures can be hidden under layers of dirt and dust. It is also amazing how you can look at an object every single day and accept it as you see it. But take a cloth to that dark piece of silver, or take a sander to that worn hardwood floor and miracles can happen.

For years, I had two old seascape oil paintings in the house that came into my possession many years ago. The paintings were bought at a furniture and junk store in St. John’s maybe 50 years ago, but their age probably goes back a half-century before that, and likely to the late 19th or early 20th century.

When I bagged them (they had been stacked behind a cabinet in a bedroom for years even then) and took them to Elizabeth Scammell Reynolds of Reynolds Fine Art Services, I did not have much of a question for her. I asked, “what do you think?”

Sure, I held my breath. You hear stories like this, you know: artworks lying idly in a home for generations, only to be discovered, “they are priceless early examples of …”

I studied Elizabeth for reaction. I visualized my new BMW:

“Well, they’re dirty!” she announced. And I realized that if you haven’t had your face washed for 100 years, you’d be dirty, too.

But, Elizabeth quickly followed up with an observation that they were charming pieces and that they had been done by skilled painters; these were not elaborately framed amateur pieces. There was no mention of Constable.   

Reynolds zeroed in on corners and canvas edges. “No sign of an artist’s name or initials.” She roughly dated them as I have indicated above. So, I followed up on her first assessment:

“Are they worth getting cleaned?”

“Absolutely!”

And she then gave me the name of Beverley Lambert, whose world is fine art, art history and conservation.

Beverley has worked with The Newfoundland Museum. She has worked as archives conservator with The Rooms, been laid off and recalled. And she offers painting conservation, restoration and repair privately, using a workspace in her St. John’s home.

A portion of her work involves restoration after fire, smoke or water damage. That is not the limit of her skills and interests. Well qualified in her field, she also enjoys the challenges posed by paper items such as maps, and she works with flat textiles (samplers, quilts and mats, for example).

One of her specialties is gilded frame conservation/restoration. This I benefited from as both my small paintings have gilded frames.

Beverley did a quick visual examination and determined there had been a fair measure of soiling over the years. She determined she could restore some of their youthfulness and she quoted a price.  

As she would be removing the canvases from their frames and discarding rough backing materials — seeing them au naturel, so to speak — I told her that when and if the blurred name of some great artist appeared, I could be reached immediately day or night. I would not be leaving the province. No call came.

The process was underway one week when I made a quick visit to her workroom and saw that one of the seascapes actually depicted daytime. I had always thought it was evening!

Over the days of what appeared to me to be incredibly painstaking work, little foreign particles came off, gradations of light and shadow returned to the rocks and birds on the wing took on new vigour.

I guess the paintings were in Beverley’s care for a month — but that’s not to say they required 30 days of work.

Faces cleaned, frames spruced up and breaks in the gilding repaired, they were fitted with new means of support. The two oil paintings, elderly but with scanty provenance, are now ready to delight the eye for perhaps another half-century.

 

 

Organizations: Reynolds Fine Art Services, BMW, The Newfoundland Museum

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