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Impressions of Visits to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center.

by Sally Booth

My first trip to the elegant Stone Hill Center, new home of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Williamstown, Mass. last May, was courtesy of the Alice T. Miner Museum and my good friend Amanda Palmer.  In Amanda’s van, we were delivering artifacts in need of conservation: KDHM’s paintings of Betsey Delord and Henry Webb and a 19th century settee from the Miner Museum.

On that clear, blue-sky spring day, we chatted happily all the way down the Northway and across the Mohawk Trail to Massachusetts and back.  I was excited and curious about our destination having seen the older conservation center nearly 20 years earlier. 

I remembered a short walk behind the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute to a house with rooms filled with paintings, sculpture and furniture.  I still see, in my minds eye, a technician gently brushing clear liquid on a painting with a very tiny brush and wonder, “will that really do anything?”  We were given a brief introduction to this meticulous, painstaking work and left with more questions than there was time to ask.

The new facility is also near the Clark, set into a steep slope; a massive grey building with large expanses of glass.

To deliver the settee, we entered the loading dock entrance.  Inside we were warmly greeted by several members of the staff and given a brief tour of the spacious painting, furniture and object studios with the floor to ceiling windows and carefully patterned duct work throughout where no toxic fumes could linger.  The Painting Studio is large enough to accomodate several conservators and every type and size of artwork.

We were taken to a smaller room where KDHM’s paintings were laid out on a table and the bubble wrap carefully cut away.  Conservators noted the age of both paintings and frames, but it was the over-painting on Betsey Delord’s portrait that held their attention.  “Did we want it taken back to the original?”  I wasn’t sure, but would ask my colleagues.

The answer was to keep the overpainting because it is so much a part of Betsey Delord’s story.

At the KDHM, the void of the missing paintings had everyone; staff, volunteers and visitors, asking if the work had started and when the paintings would return.  There was no answer until a November call to the Center revealed removal of grime and varnish had just begun and that this would be a perfect time to visit.

I was even more excited on this journey down the Northway, this time with my husband Kit.

Painting Conservator MC Betz welcomed us and ushered us into the large painting studio. There, on two of the easels, were our beloved Betsey and her son-in law Henry Webb.Image 

In front of Betsey’s portrait, I was speechless for a few moments at the freshness of it and then began to notice other things:  a very delicate lace at the edge of the dress, the skin tones were richer, more detailed and the ugly yellow blotch on her left breast was gone! 

MC pointed out other campaigns of previous retouching, some higher up near the neckline.  The lace around the top of the dress was barely visible before.  Do we want to keep it?  Again I say I will ask my colleagues.Image

And then we looked at Henry!  Could this be the one I remembered? Now, comparing the before photograph, we could see that over the years, the accumulation of grime had blurred the artist’s fine brushwork and the details of Henry’s handsome face.Image

And finally, we are shown the x-radiograph revealing the original painting and design of Betsey’s dress!  Here at last was the answer to all our wonderings about what was underneath that red shawl.Image

 

When the money has been raised and we can bring the paintings home, we’ll be able to show everyone what has been a secret for 179 years!

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