Whether it was the too-tight canvas that caused the great right-angle tear in the painting, we shall never know. But the tear is there and patched by a couple of pieces of brown linen glued to the back of the canvas. “Feel this — it’s like cement,” notes Harrison, tapping the fibers of the original canvas where they are stuck to the linen backing. Farther up, a small hole has received similar treatment.
The back of the canvas also sports an odd symbol that runs off the edge — more evidence for the cut-down theory. Harrison is stumped as to the symbol’s meaning, and it bothers him. But the biggest mystery, the thing that remains stubbornly silent when Harrison says, “We’re trying to get the painting to talk to us,” is the tape. It’s gone now, but its former placement is plainly visible on the painting’s face — long, overlapping rectangles of damage, the flaked paint and brighter colors bearing witness to a protective covering that took a toll when removed. But a gummy residue on the painting’s backside makes it pretty clear that the tape was placed there, not on the front. How to explain the effect? And why was the tape put there in the first place? Its path covers no crack, no fault or tear. A mystery.
Finally, says Harrison, “It’s been scrubbed. Look at the nubs of the canvas” — bare and brown amid the red of the robes. “A painting can have up to seven layers of paint — the last two or three are glazes, to get the depth of color. Those are gone here.”
Restoration will mean, to some extent, replacing what has been removed. “We don’t want to repaint the original,” says Harrison. “We’ll never get it back to 100 percent, but we may be able to get it back to 80 percent.” To do that, he says, “You’ve got to know colors,” know the way they’ll blend when layered and glazed. “You can use black, seal it, put a thin layer of white on, and you’ve got gray — the black bleeds through. Then you can start working with your other tones — your blues and purples. The biggest job in restoring — and this takes years of training — is that you’ve got to figure out how the artist mixed the paint, how he painted, what kind of brush he used. I remember, back when I’d just gotten out on my own, I got an oil painting by Stanfield, a well-known English marine painter. Somebody had put a cigarette through it. Stanfield always did beautiful sunsets, and it took me weeks to get the color of the evening sky. I was going with whites and blues, and then by sheer luck, I put a touch of black in there one night, and bang.
“Some paints are thick,” he continues, “and leave great lines on the canvas. And some are flat and runny. I’ll use a glass palette, and I’ll keep all my warm colors in one place and my cold colors in another place. You put a nub of each color you need in the center, and you keep playing with them. You can always see where you’ve done work, because you did it. But many people can’t.”
But painting is a long way off. (In fact, Harrison won’t even be the one to do it. He’ll retire to Colorado before the painting is finished, and the job will fall to his successor at Harrison’s of London, Teresa Brunston.) Before the glorious edifice can be made new, there is the matter of the unseen foundation. Before poppy oil, pigment, and glaze, there is good old malt vinegar, a trade secret Harrison brought with him from England.
III: The Picture-Repairer: A History
Easter, 1945: A country village in Sherwood Forest, to which Harrison and his family had been evacuated. “I was 14, and they put us out of school — the teacher was still at war, and we had no chance of staying on. I remember my mum saying, ‘What do you want to do?’ I had no idea. But I had always been good at drawing, so she took me down to the Nottingham School of Art. That was a good job, going to an art school. Pleased me to no end. It was a Monday morning, drizzling. My mum booked me in, and as we walked down the corridor, there was a hyacinth — I can still smell it; every year, I have to buy at least one. We got to the room, and there were quite a few easels. The lecturer said, ‘Come on up,’ so I worked my way up between the easels, and there, at the front, was a nude woman. I’d never seen one before. I thought, ‘Well, you can’t go wrong here.’ And the lecturer said, ‘Go, sit over there, and draw this model your way.’ ”
Harrison’s art school idyll lasted only a few weeks. “My dad was a coal miner, and he always said, ‘You’ll never go down a coal mine.’ ” (Though the hazards of the job probably wouldn’t have killed him — Harrison, compactly built and large of knuckle, seems to possess a kind of bulldog indestructibility.) “One day, he came in and said, ‘I’ve met a picture-repairer.’ They call them restorers now, but they were workmen in those days — my mentor, Bill Mullins, wore a flat cap and overalls. Dad said, ‘I’m putting you in as an apprentice for seven years. I’m going to pay him, and you’ll have two and sixpence a week pocket money.’ ” And so the course of Harrison’s life, for the next 63 years, was set.
“I settled in quite nicely,” he recalls, “and after a few months, Mullins put me in the Guild, which was a godsend. The Guild was like a mother; it looked after you. They didn’t teach you, but they made sure you were taught. They sent me to Italy when I was a teenager. I was in Siena, working with this old man. He had me up on this ladder, working on a figure set into a wall; we were going to take the gold off, seal it, and re-gild it. I said, ‘When was this gold put on?’ He said, ‘About 500 years ago.’ I nearly fell off the ladder. This runs through me all the time: they always said, ‘You’re not really interested in the client; you’re not interested in the money; you’re not interested in you. You’re interested in the piece.’ I was touching something that had been gilt 500 years ago.”