“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…
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.”
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.”
Harrison went back to work, a long way from Victorian England. “I moved into a space on University Avenue, and a very nice lady walked in with a painting of an Arab boy — a Spanish-style thing. I didn’t want to restore it, really, but I did it. Years later, I was watching The Pirate with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, and she smashed that painting over his head. I don’t know whether it was the same one, but it might have been. People say to me, ‘Why the devil did you come here? You had all that history in England.’ Yeah, but in England, you can’t touch the history. Here, you can touch it. You get electric shocks up your arms. A guy walked in here once with a folded piece of paper; it was torn and worn at all the bends. He said, ‘I don’t know if this is worth anything; would you check it out?’ It was an Indian treaty, an original, dated 1851 and all in script, with the Yerba tribe in Northern California. It gave them 500 pins, so many needles, a roll of cloth for everyone over 15…fascinating.” Another time, an invalid telephoned Harrison, asking him to examine a photo that had become stuck to the glass of its frame. Harrison’s son got a look at the photo and exclaimed, “That’s Josie!”
“Wyatt Earp’s third wife! Dated 1895? That was taken 16 minutes before the gunfight at the OK Corral.”
“And if you look at the film Tombstone,” continues Harrison, “when all the brothers are walking down to the Corral, he points off to the hotel, and there’s Josie, taking a photograph. I’d never looked at Wyatt Earp as history; I’d looked at him as a cowboy. The man rejoiced when I got the picture off the glass. It’s a trust.”
Before rebuilding, Harrison must unbuild. He’s got to get the painting off the frame, and he’s got to get the patch off the back — because the canvas needs relining if it’s going to be properly mounted onto a stretcher. “Relining” means sticking the old canvas onto a new one, and if we don’t get the patch off, the suction that fixes new canvas to old will result in a great raised outline of the linen patch in between.
“Up until 20 years ago,” says Harrison, “we used to do relining with wax resin. You’d have a pot on the stove, and you’d put in two-thirds wax and one-third resin and get it going into a brew. We had an extendable rack; you’d fix your new canvas on that, draw the outline of your old canvas onto it, and then brush the wax on. Oh, it would stink. Then you’d let the wax go hard.” The old canvas got placed facedown, and the new one lay on top. “Then you’d heat one of those great big Victorian irons on the potbellied stove” and get to work. “The iron would melt the wax and fuse the two canvases together.”
That all changed when a fellow named Gustav Berger came up with BEVA 371, a clear film made from resin and ethyl vinyl acetate that, under enough heat and pressure, did the job of the wax-resin iron-on with considerably less mess and heavy lifting. Of course, you needed a great hulking vacuum table to work up that heat and pressure, and besides that (it will come as little surprise), Harrison was not a fan of technological innovation.
“This business doesn’t move much; it’s still very old fashioned. It’s only since I’ve been here, in the last 20 years, that various things have come out. Changes — whether they’re good or bad, I don’t know. I put up a barrier as soon as someone starts talking about plastic. I don’t want to know what he’s on about. But with the BEVA, I’ve given in; I’ve taken a step to the other side.”
And that other side can be a scary place, one in which painting restorers (and painting itself) can have trouble finding a place. “The guilds have just disappeared. I’m guessing it was because of mass production, which means there was very little hands-on. We were a trade, and the trades were just pushed aside. The big firms that used to fund the guilds were pumping out plastic, you know what I mean? They didn’t need us anymore.” What’s more, technological innovations in print production have sometimes resulted in frauds that evade even Harrison’s experienced eye. “I had a gallery owner take me to his showroom some months ago. He asked my opinion of a painting, and I said, ‘That’s an oil.’ But they completely fooled me — somehow, they pressed the paint marks into a canvas and then litho’d a painting on top of that.”
So my saint was destined for the vacuum table, but first, there was to be a long engagement with the more traditional lineup of malt vinegar, razor blades, and trowels. Again and again I wince as I watch Harrison at work. Tink tink tink, brush stirring in a glass jar, then dabbing on vinegar that wicks up the strands of the old canvas as if they were straws with four-year-olds at the other end. Scritch scritch scritch, razor blade dragged across the nubs, taking with it tiny globs of ancient adhesive left over from the mysterious tape — and hopefully, not too much of the nubs themselves. (“This canvas is top quality, handmade on a loom,” he says. Still, “We’ve got to make it flat,” or else we’ll wind up with more bumps pushing up through after the vacuum session.) And a faint tom tom tom of the taut canvas, bouncing away from Harrison’s proddings at the patch, which is stiff and cracked as any old scrap of animal hide.
“This adhesive is some kind of concoction,” marvels Harrison as he works at the patch. “I want my solvent to soak through to the linen, but it won’t soak through; the adhesive is a barrier.” It won’t soak through the patch, but it’s doing a bang-up job of seeping into the surrounding canvas. “We’re going to check the other side in a minute, because it’s started going down through a little hole. Against popular thought, oil paintings are very forgiving. One thing I’ve told my apprentice many times is, ‘Be confident.’ You can stop if it starts to go wrong.” Of course, Harrison himself has helped create that popular thought, at least in my case. “A high percentage of my work is through amateur restorers,” he says to me at one point, telling stories of paintings smeared by Windex rubdowns. And even in his own shop, he grants that “things do happen occasionally. I’m being very careful; this is why you do things an inch at a time.” While we’ve got it flipped faceup, he brushes more solvent onto the patch from this side, and it seeps through a crack in the hide-stiff linen.
Tap tap, scritch scritch, prod prod. Harrison is a busy man — pieces regularly come in from New York collectors and from a fire-damaged restaurant, from cowboy enthusiasts, connoisseurs, and the merely sentimental. He gets to my saint when he can, and eventually, he gets it clean. But 63 years in the business is enough, and it’s his longtime assistant Teresa who relines it and mounts it on a stretcher, pulling it taut around the wooden slats with pliers and pounding in fresh brass tacks. “I’ve never stopped working in the whole of my life,” Harrison tells me. “We brought a container of antique English furniture over 25 years ago for me to work on in my spare time. We’ve still got it, and we’re going to send it up to Colorado, where we’ve bought a house. And I’m going to settle down to paint. I’ve got so many paintings that I’ve just started.”
Before he moves, however, he does one last job for my saint — filling in the nasty gash below his knee, the great tear that brought on the stubborn patch in the first place. Now it’s backed with fresh new canvas; it just wants filling in.
Dozens of empty Fancy Feast cat food tins line a standing set of shelves in the workspace on the other side of the wall from Harrison’s showroom; a client brings them. They’re not really empty, of course; they just don’t contain cat food anymore. Very little is empty in the workspace, save for a few broad surfaces upon which Harrison may lay his canvases. Everything else is racks of projects in progress, photos of completed projects, paintings for sale, frames, drawers full of papers and molds, shelves packed with sprays and jars and powders and tools and tapes and paints…and cat food tins. He uses them to store all manner of items, some more obviously useful than others: rusty tacks, corks whose springy bodies help to lodge a painting firmly into its frame, screws and thumbtacks and buttons…
Harrison finds an empty tin and places it on the dull metal circle of a coffeemaker — not, however, the same coffeemaker he keeps on the same counter and actually uses to make coffee, coffee that is poured into dainty cups whose bright floral pattern matches that of the accompanying saucers and is then drunk black. (An electric teakettle and toaster share the counter space.) “What we’ll do here is melt some raw candle wax and use it to fill the gap in your canvas. It never does harden. In a hundred years’ time, a little bit of heat and you could get it right back out. That’s the theory behind all of this — reversible. That’s the way we have to do things now.” (The same goes for the restoration of the paint. Before setting to work, “We’ll put on a layer of retouch varnish. That brings the color up and seals it. Then you paint on top of that. That way, someone could bring it right back to its original condition. Reversible.”)
But (of course) there’s a step before that step. Harrison adds a little raw sienna powder to the melted wax and a little burnt sienna as well. Then he spreads a strip of canvas onto the mirror lying on his work table and smears the tinted wax onto it with a narrow trowel. “Because it’s oil paint, you can mix it into the wax,” he explains. “Remember when we were talking about colors. Rather than just putting a color straight on, it’s best if you can build up to it with a base color.” The precise red of the robe will be easer to obtain if the underlayer already has something of the eventual shade. Again and again he mixes, one smear after another stripes the canvas, until he finds a shade he thinks satisfactory. Then he begins pressing the reddened wax into the gap in the canvas, tiny strokes of a trowel making the low place a level plane.
Teresa Brunston spent years working at Aaron Brothers, telling people that “framing art is preserving it. If you frame it right, you won’t have to do it again.” She had started there while attending community college art classes, and her tenure continued after college didn’t. “But it was the law of diminishing returns, and I started thinking, ‘What to do? What’s the next thing?’ ” That turned out to be Rick’s Custom Framing in La Mesa, where she got to do more creative work with higher-end materials. And that’s where she met Roy Harrison.
“She’d been in framing a long time,” recalls Harrison. “I didn’t want to get back into this full-time, so when Rick started up on his own about 18 years ago, he said, ‘Why don’t you rent a desk from me?’ I threw in with him, and we did restoration. She was working with him, but she was absolutely fascinated with what I was doing in the corner. She left Rick’s, and then later, she contacted me about work.”
“I had always wanted to do this,” explains Brunston. “A lot of it was born out of being really bored as a kid. I would make things, entertain myself. I always liked working with my hands, and I started painting with oil paints in high school. And I love old things, fixing things up rather than buying new. They don’t make things like they used to. I bought and refinished old furniture. I learned to sew.”
Brunston says that “meeting Roy was a miracle, an answer to my prayers” — the happy union of her urge to make art with her restorative impulse. “My daughter was learning how to surf, and she wasn’t driving yet. So I would spend a long time on the beach, just sitting there. And one day I opened my Bible and my notepad and just kind of started writing stuff down. ‘What do I love to do? What do I wish I could do?’ And at the top, I put ‘Art restorer.’ I didn’t finish college, so I thought that was a lost cause, but it wasn’t long after that that I met Roy. I talked to him and asked if he ever gave classes. He had seen me work; he knew I wasn’t afraid to get dirty. I used to get manicures, but I don’t anymore — all this stuff that you’re in. He always said a good framer would make a good restorer, and he agreed to take me on as his apprentice. I had to pay him, and I worked a second job to be able to do that. I left for a while because of some allergic response I had to the working conditions.”
The former apprentice was happy to become the master, training Brunston as he had been trained decades earlier — no college necessary. “I trained her for about five years, and then she left me. And then she came back. She’s had about seven years’ experience. You run into people who want to become art restorers overnight. Once, I had this girl write me, and she had a good résumé — she was coming out of Pepperdine. I phoned her, and she’d been lecturing in museums on the restoration of paintings. I said, ‘What experience have you had in actually restoring paintings?’ She said, ‘I haven’t yet.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, love; I don’t believe in paper. I want to know what you can do with your hands.’ ”
Brunston began in 2001, and Harrison had just the project for her. “The longest I’ve ever spent on a painting was four years. I almost admitted defeat. This postman — he’s a lovely person, and he collected baseball stuff. He’d found this oil painting of a baseball player on the Internet, but they hadn’t told him that it was all cupped. When it arrived, 60 percent of the paint was at the bottom of the box. You’ve got to earn your rent, and I was getting frustrated, and then Teresa joined me. I said, ‘Now I can earn the overhead, and you can work on that baseball player and take your time.’ And it worked.” The baseball player was Brunston’s first completed restoration, the product of a solid month of painstaking work.
Now the Picture-Repairer is gone to Colorado, leaving behind his name on the shop and the woman he trained to replace him. His workspace, once a riot of detritus, a labyrinth fathomed only by its maker, is comparatively bare and open. My saint is propped up near the front of the shop, so that the light from the window rakes across its surface, highlighting the flattened areas where the tape somehow pressed through. “The texture is smoother there,” Brunston says, “and so the varnish I put on to make the infilling reversible reflects differently. When we get the final coat of varnish on, it will blend in.”
Brunston is repainting — infilling. “I don’t know what the light is going to be like in someone’s home or office, so I try to work with true colors, natural light. Normally, when you’re painting, you use pointillism, little dots of color. You don’t want to cover what the original artist painted, you just want to fill in the missing paint.” But out toward the edges of the painting, amid the red curtains that surround the scene, “There was a lot of missing paint, and a lot of discoloration. So I’m not doing as much pointillism there.” Instead, she is allowing herself quarter-inch brushstrokes with a tiny sable brush. “They have the best hairs for holding and distributing paint. The length of hairs, the flexibility of the bristles, and the type of stroke you use will determine the way the paint appears. You try to follow the strokes of the artist.”
In this case, there aren’t really any strokes to follow — the paint is too thin, and the texture of the canvas is visible throughout. But that suits Brunston just fine. “I don’t like to keep too much paint on my brush at a time. I prefer to do several thin, translucent layers — put in a base color, and then go back and do the highlights. It helps the color blend in — you can get a better match. And then there will be a layer of varnish. It’s a matter of experience, knowing how the colors will look when they dry, and then again when they’re varnished. If you look closely, you can see where I’ve filled it in. But I’ll match the colors well enough that someone just looking at the painting won’t be able to tell.”
In amid the curtains, “There was a little bit of red undertone, but so much of the paint had lifted. I’m mixing umber into the crimson, darkening the red. I don’t like to use a lot of black; it can make things look dull. I’d rather use blue or green. And I don’t use a lot of white, because it can make things look chalky. As you go along, you have to change the color slightly, even in a tiny area like the face. It’s amazing how many colors are actually in there — and they’re funny colors. Purples and grays and browns.” The face offers another testament to her skill — there more than anywhere, the ravages of the tape had been apparent. Not only because of the flaked-off paint but also because of the change in texture and brightness from one side of the face to the other. Now, the difference is all but invisible, the result of new paint judiciously applied to both sides of the border between taped and untaped.
Watching Brunston work, I am conscious of the quiet. Part of it is the serenity brought on by the newly opened space. But part of it is Harrison’s absence. “I like the quiet,” says Brunston, “and I like what I do. I take things that have been forgotten or neglected, cast off or abused, and bring them back to their former beauty, which is like what God does to us. That’s one of the driving motivations for me.”
VI: “Art is cheap, framing is expensive”
— Tom Weller, Culture Made Stupid
When Harrison was reminiscing about his happy days in the Guild, he mentioned that there was another Guild devoted entirely to framing and frame repair and that they too had mothered him and seen to his training in their art. “We used to have to hand-carve the rosettes on broken frames. But then silicone came out — it’s another way the guilds were pushed out.” Suddenly, “As long as you had a mirror image of the rosette on another part of the frame,” you could simply take a mold and cast a new piece. “It picked up every mark, every line of the grain, and it saved all that carving.” And because it all got coated with a fresh layer of gold leaf, the repair was completely invisible.
Sometimes, however, the damage is deep enough that the old ways prove necessary. Brunston shows me a mirror frame that simply gave way all along the bottom, splintering into shards and dropping the mirror to the floor. Her husband, a contractor, has cut out a wooden backing and screwed it into a stable section of the original frame. For her part, Brunston has pieced together enough of the shards to get a sense of the original pattern and will now carve the decorative front of the new base out of wood putty. Again, the gold leaf will cover the line between old and new material.
My own frame was undamaged. But it was also ugly — brown glaze mashed onto gold leaf with smudgy, circular brushstrokes. Bourgeois that I am, I can see that sticking my newly magnificent painting back into its old frame would be akin to serving Château Margaux in a Dixie cup. So I’m delighted to see that Brunston has spruced it up: stripping and prepping the wood, pressing new sheets of (imitation) gold onto its surface, and then brushing on a new layer of varnish to tone down the gold’s showy glow.