Sunday, August 06, 2000

Murals' magic emerges

Six-year effort brings 19th-century Duncanson oils
at Taft Museum back to their original glory

By Owen Findsen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It took Robert Scott Duncanson two years to paint the murals in the Taft Museum of Art. It took Helen Mar Parkin and her assistants six years to restore them. “There was a lot more damage under the varnish than we thought,” she says.

        Ms. Parkin is packing her brushes, scalpel and magnifying lenses and heading back home to Texas, ending a task that began six years ago as a consultant to the Taft and ended as chief conservator. Her job was to restore and conserve the murals, which also led to new discoveries about their history.

[photo] Helen Mar Parkin, chief conservator for the restoration project.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        The eight paintings in the halls of the Taft are the first major works by Mr. Duncanson (1821-1872), the first African-American artist to achieve international recognition. They are also the most ambitious set of domestic murals in pre-Civil War America, according to art historian Joseph Ketner, an authority on Duncanson.

        “They are very important paintings by a very important artist in a very important house that was owned by some very important people,” says Taft director Philip Long.

        Mr. Long estimates the cost of the project to be “in the neighborhood of $350,000. We did some very extensive fund-raising,” he says. The project was supported by numerous grants, the largest of which was $50,000 from the Getty Foundation.

        Before the completion of this project, the oil paintings hadn't been seen as the artist intended for nearly 150 years. Badly overpainted in the 1860s, they were lost and forgotten behind wallpaper for some 60 years. Discovered and restored in 1930, when the Taft home became a museum, the murals have gathered increasing attention and prestige as researchers have explored the history of African-American art.

Nicholas Longworth home
        In the mid-19th century, the museum was the home of millionaire arts patron Nicholas Longworth. In 1850, Mr. Longworth commissioned the 30-year-old Mr. Duncanson to decorate the entrance hall of his home, then called Belmont, with oil paintings depicting idealistic rural and mountain scenes — trees, sweeping vistas with tiny cottages, neat fields and a few figures spotted here and there under dramatic skies.

  What: Taft Museum of Art
  When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday
  Where: 316 Pike St., downtown
  Admission: $4, $2 seniors and students, free children 18 and under; free to all Wednesdays and Sundays.
  Exhibitions: The Great Migration: The Evolution of African American Art, 1790-1945 through Oct. 22; Architecture Cincinnati I: Photographs by Alice Weston through Aug. 16.
  Information: 241-0343.
        “There are no specific subjects,” Ms. Parkin says. “And only one has a name, the Sunset Mural, because of the orange in the sky.”

        Some time in the late 1860s, the murals were covered with wallpaper. The house became the home of David Sinton, who gave it to his daughter, Anna Sinton Taft, who lived there with her husband, Charles Phelps Taft (27th U.S. President William Howard Taft's half brother). Charles and Anna Taft assembled the incredible art collection for which the the museum is known.

        The murals were revealed when the couple gave their home to the city for a museum. Mrs. Taft recalled being told that there were murals under the paper. During the renovation, the wallpaper was stripped and the murals revealed.

        “We knew they were restored in the 1930s, but we discovered that that was the second restoration,” Ms. Parkin says. At some point, probably in the 1860s, the murals were cleaned, really scrubbed, and damaged.”

        To cover the mistakes, the paintings were retouched, but the job was badly done. Perhaps Nicholas Longworth or his son Joseph ordered the wallpaper because they thought the murals were beyond repair.

        Once covered with wallpaper, they were forgotten, so gas pipes were run through the walls for lamps and, when the Tafts hung the paintings they were collecting, nails were driven into the plaster, damaging the paint surface.

        The new restoration removes all the overpainting by earlier restorers.

        “We took away everything that was not painted by Duncanson,” Ms. Parkin says.

        New retouching fills in the blank places but never covers anything done by the original artist. “Much of the work was in filling tiny dots with a small brush,” she says.

One mural missing
        Ms. Parkin expected to stay in Cincinnati for two years, working with local conservators Frederick Wallace and Andrea Chevallier, but the discovery of early damage expanded the project. Ms. Parkin joined the staff as chief curator in 1996 and settled in for a long stay, working not only on the murals but other projects, such as condition reports on museum objects.

        Mr. Duncanson framed his paintings in elaborate gold frames, simulated in paint. High on one wall there is a one-foot-square remnant of another frame, indicating there once was a ninth mural.

        “There were two doors from the hall to the music room where now there is one,” Ms. Parkin says. “Between them, there was another mural that was lost when the central door was cut. We left the corner of the frame showing to show what was once there.”

        The appearance of the Taft interior is not the way it looked when the murals were painted. The 1930 house restoration was inspired by the look of Colonial Williamsburg, more imaginary history than accuracy. Now the goal is to discover the way the house looked before its many alterations.

        The restorers have left clues to the early history of the house exposed. Below one mural, a square of wall has been stripped of paint to expose the first layer, which was painted to simulate wood panels.

        A patch of wall next to one mural reveals the original wall colors. Paint layers have been carefully scraped away with a scalpel, showing small patches of gray-green paint, right back to the unpainted plaster wall.

        “There's even a layer of varnish,” Ms. Parkin says. “At some point the walls were varnished right up to the edge of the paintings. We don't know why.”

        And thanks to the restoration, viewers can get closer to Duncanson's art than ever. Ms. Parkin points to the edges of the paintings between the sky and trees. There's blue sky around them but a tan color between the leaf clusters.

        “He painted the sky up to the trees, but not behind them,” Ms. Parkin said. Even the artist's sketching can be seen. “You can see the pencil lines where he sketched in the branches.”

Restoration reversible
        “Our job is not just to restore, but to conserve the original work. All our work is reversible, so that later restorers can remove it if better materials and techniques are discovered.

        And it is the word “conserve” that she stresses. “Restoration is only part of the job. Conserving the paintings for the future is just as important. This work should last hundreds of years now.”

        Completing the restoration does not end the Taft Museum's plans for the murals.

        “The next step is to put the murals in their original context,” Mr. Long says. “Our hope is to bring that space back to the way it looked when the murals were painted, with the faux wood paneling and faux wood graining on the woodwork.”


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