“He’s restored that villa to a fare-thee-well.
That’s the trouble with Americans; all that money and no taste.”
— Jonathan Trevanny,
This story begins with an ending: an estate sale in a Hillcrest apartment, scanning the rooms of the deceased, picking through what was left behind. I once heard that Hillcrest used to be referred to as the Gay Nineties, “since everyone there was either gay or ninety.” This particular apartment almost certainly belonged to one of the latter category — everything dim-lit and draped, full of heavy furniture and frilly knickknacks, a bygone elegance gone to seed. And a painting, beat to hell but still displaying the artist’s skill: a painting of a saint, bedecked with robes and halo, writing at a desk while an attendant angel held his inkwell. A writer’s painting — even if you didn’t subscribe to the whole angels-and-haloes scenario, it was a short imaginative jump to seeing the thing as depicting a visit from the Muse. The saint’s hand was raised in surprise as he lifted his head from his paper and beheld the angel, bearing a feather-pen of another color. “Oh, I didn’t see you there! What’s that? Try writing this way? Why, thank you!”
“Sixteenth-century Spanish Colonial,” read the tag. “$400.”
“How much will you take for the painting?”
“Make me an offer,” said the man running the sale, his voice slippery with confident ease.
“How about $75?”
The man’s voice picked up a little grit. “Oh, no. I couldn’t let it go for less than $300. A man came in just a while ago and said he’d pay $500. He said it might appraise for $5000.” (This was some time ago, when Antiques Roadshow was at its cultural peak.) Risible as the claim was, I didn’t argue. I wanted the painting — not for appraisal, but for me. I paid the $300.
For years, the painting hung in my foyer in all its low-rent glory, a sad testament to the fear of becoming bourgeois: “See, I may own a gen-u-ine old-fashioned oil painting in a big gilt frame, but it’s okay — look at that gash in the canvas! Look at the flaking paint! See the ragged edge down there at the bottom! For heaven’s sake, it even looks like somebody ran a strip of duct tape over half the saint’s face! See here, how the canvas is flattened, how the colors are less faded, how bits of paint have been lifted away?”
But when, two years later, you’re driving the kids down to Baskin-Robbins in La Mesa, and there, just across the street, you see the gold-lettered sign for Harrison’s of London, Art & Frame Restoration, Art & Antique Conservators — well, how is a body, bourgeois despite all fears, to resist?
“Artists are the worst people,” says Milroy Harrison, art restorer, bending my somewhat ruined canvas. “They don’t care what they paint on. These painters, unless they were sponsored, they’d got no money for materials. They’d use any damn thing. I had a painting once that was done on two pieces of plywood; it looked as though the artist had fetched them out of the dustbin.” What’s more, “Those men in the 1800s were making their own varnishes and their own cleaners. Eighty percent of the paintings in museums are finished or restored improperly.”
Some are even begun improperly. “When an artist paints,” says Harrison, “he gets his achievement out of that last day on the easel. For the artist, that’s the end of the painting’s life. But it’s not, really; it’s the beginning of its life. A hundred years later, you might get something like this old German painting.” He gestures at a nearby easel displaying an image of a landscape. Near the top, the hazy blue sky is bulging out, doing an impression of a windshield after some poor soul’s head has slammed into it. “This is what we call ‘cupping’ — there’s air gotten underneath.” Harrison points to the tiny lines radiating out from the bulge’s center. “And this is what we call ‘the spider’s web’ — very soon, it’s going to go out in a circle and start cracking, and the paint will fall off. It’s because it was ill prepared. The undercoat is not even gesso.” Without the animal glue — “the only glue that can be regenerated with water” — in the gesso, the paint has little hope of clinging to the canvas for over a century’s worth of expansions and contractions brought on by changes in temperature and humidity.
But the trouble, in my painting’s case, did not come in the beginning, nor in the finishing. And it had never been restored — not really. A session under a black light convinces Harrison that whatever paint remains on the canvas is original. Newer stuff, laid over the original varnish, would have shown up as dark patches, he explains. The golden vine trailing along the saint’s robe and cloak appears black under the light, and Harrison guesses that, while original, the vine was painted on after the initial painting had dried — a kind of dramatic overlay. Fungus, on the other hand, would show up as white dots; happily, he finds none.
Mostly, the problem is just that the painting is old and was poorly looked after. The fraying along the bottom? “I’ve seen this before. I think this was on a screen in an old stone Catholic church. Then it was propped up in the basement of the church, virtually sitting in water. It’s been cut down — you wouldn’t get an artist cutting off the bottom of the tablecloth like this.”
And after it was cut down, it was glued onto a frame. Not wrapped around a proper stretcher, with blocks at the corners that allow for manual expansion and contraction, but glued to a fixed wooden rectangle. “That’s not good. It’s almost too tight. If anything fell against this, it’d go straight through. The canvas moves all during the day and night.” If the frame can’t be adjusted as the canvas shrinks…