During his Siena sojourn, “We used to go and sit on a little bank under a tree just off the main square for our lunch. He used to bring a little bottle of wine and some crispy bread and some cheese, and his wife sent some for me. While he was eating, he used to scratch at the clay and put it in his box.” Later, “He took me down to Pompeii,” to work on restoring a mural. “At one point, he said, ‘Get me some raw sienna.’ I’m a typical British kid; I’m going through his beautiful box of paints, looking for a tube of raw sienna. And he’s laughing at me. He got down, took a piece of the clay and a mortar and pestle, and ground it with some poppy oil. We made our own raw sienna. It’s the old school.”
Harrison’s stay with Mullins lasted 22 years. When his mentor died, “He left me all his little mixtures, his little recipes for cleaning solvents. You’ve got to get a solvent that will remove the old varnish but won’t touch the paint. A lot of people think you can patch it without cleaning, but you can’t. When you patch colors to dirty colors, it looks like a scab. You’ve got to clean it.”
Those little mixtures are still with us on the day I return to the studio to check on Harrison’s progress in cleaning up my saint, stored in brown glass bottles alongside industry cleaners with names like RVR6 Varnish Remover and SVR12 Synthetic Varnish Remover and C1123 Smoke Cleaner. And Murphy’s Oil Soap. And malt vinegar.
Little dabs of labeled masking tape dot the surface of the canvas — Harrison is testing the effects of various cleaners. First up: saliva. He licks his thumb and rubs it on the canvas; the colors bloom under the damp sheen. “My old mentor used to say, ‘It’s the strongest solvent you’ve got.’ This is what it will look like when varnished. The colors will come out. I’m just getting through the dust here.” Had one of my children licked a finger and rubbed my fancy oil painting, I would have scolded them. Now, all I can do is wince and trust that the man knows what he’s doing. His mentor was a workman, and so is he, and so maybe it’s not surprising that I keep thinking he’s handling my work of art like a slab of meat, turning it, rubbing it, picking at its surface with his thumbnail. I have to remind myself that he has reverence for “the piece,” that he knows what it can and cannot withstand. I have never before been so conscious of a painting’s architecture, the stable, homely systems that undergird the beautiful ornamentation.
Harrison works with cotton balls and Q-Tips, applying bits of this or that cleaner to this or that spot and gently rubbing in a circular motion. One, two, three circles, and then a check to make sure none of the pigment is ending up on the cotton. All he wants is dirt and the yellow of old varnish. Some do almost nothing. One actually makes the blue of the saint’s tunic fade even further. The oil soap and the RVR6 seem to come closest to the saliva. “This is what takes the time — not the actual cleaning, but finding out which one to use. If you’re not careful, it can be too late. You always have mineral spirits — they’ll stop the action. But you only operate in the area you can monitor with your eyes — a four-inch square is the biggest you should do,” even after you find the right cleaner.
“Sometimes, painters mix wax with the oil — they do some diabolical things. If you find wax, you go around it with your solvent — you gently clean it, but mostly you leave it alone. Once, I was a young apprentice, and I got overconfident — a half-inch became one inch, and that became three inches. I’d got it hammered out, and then I came to the face. Nobody ever told me that this particular painter did the eyes in watercolor, to get translucency. It’s been 60 years, and I can still remember the feeling” as the eyes disappeared in a blue smear across the canvas. “You never know what the painter has done.” (The painting’s owner allowed the eyes to be painted back in, and Mullins was merciful to his careless apprentice.)
Harrison took over his mentor’s operation and carried on, a Victorian workman working on Victorian paintings in post-Victorian England. Then he took a vacation. “We came to San Diego in the early ’70s on holiday. We loved La Mesa — it has a village atmosphere, like in England.” The visits got more frequent, and longer. In July of ’83, he and his wife Pat moved here for good. “I came here to retire,” he says. “I had visions of wearing a Mexican straw hat and painting on the beach. It’s never happened in 25 years.”
What happened? “A certain well-known motor trader was talking to us. We hadn’t been here many months. He said, ‘I’ve brought this painting to show you.’ Pat was sitting over at the desk. I looked at it.
“ ‘How much did you pay for it?’ I asked.
“ ‘Three thousand dollars.’
“I was trying to be tactful, but Pat burst out laughing. It was a chocolate box top. You know how they impress a printing on chocolate boxes? There were brush marks pressed into the cardboard. I said, ‘You’d better get your money back.’ ” He tells other stories — of Thomas Kinkade prints being taken for costly masterworks, of gallery owners proudly displaying computer transfers, even of a collector asking his opinion of a Mona Lisa, wholly innocent of the original’s existence. “This is the American public,” Harrison says, wondering. “I wrote home once and said, ‘I could be a millionaire.…’ ”
But, he says, he also wrote, “ ‘These people are like five-year-olds,’ and I meant it in a complimentary way. They’re thirsting, grasping for knowledge — and it’s improved over the last 20 years. There were just a lot of things in our genes over there, because we’d lived with it. I gave a talk to the Picture Framers Association 15 years ago, and they didn’t know about acidity in paper. They didn’t know about fungus in paper. They were putting size in their conservation materials.”