The Rewarding Challenges of Treating the Death of General Wolfe
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|By:||Debra Daly-Hartin, Peter Vogel|
|Publication Date:||6/1/2003 12:00:00 PM|
CCI recently completed the conservation treatment of the painting Death of General Wolfe by James Barry for the New Brunswick Museum. This was a team project that benefited from the collaborative efforts of conservators, conservation scientists, a materials historian, and curators from several institutions. The painting has many stories to tell. It speaks of a dedicated, accomplished artist and intellectual, having great ambition and aspirations, who eventually became notorious for his antagonistic temperament. It also speaks to a pivotal moment in Canadian history, and yet, intriguingly, the painting still holds many secrets relating to its provenance and aspects of its iconography.
Following training on the continent, James Barry returned to London where he began the most productive years of his career as a painter. Between 1771 and 1776, he exhibited 15 paintings at the Royal Academy and established himself as an accomplished painter of historical subjects. In response to Benjamin West’s painting of the Death of General Wolfe (1770), which had been exhibited at the Academy in 1771 and is now owned by the National Gallery of Canada, Barry wanted to represent a more accurate and noble portrayal of the event. Barry’s version depicts a smaller group of people, including only those who may have witnessed Wolfe’s dying moments. However, the painting was not well received and was the last he ever exhibited at the Royal Academy. In fact, the painting disappeared for many years, re-emerging in 1901, when it was sent from New York to Montreal for an exhibition. At this time it was purchased by Sir Lees Knowles and given to the Lancashire Fusiliers, who displayed it in the Officer’s mess. Sir Lees Knowles later bought it back and placed it in his country house. In 1929, Dr. John Clarence Webster purchased the painting and donated it, in 1932, to its current owner, the New Brunswick Museum.
Upon arrival at CCI, the painting was structurally stable, but its appearance was heavily disfigured by layers of discoloured varnish and pigmented coatings. It was clear that early damage to the painting had resulted in major treatment. Repetitive damages, seen in horizontal lines across the painting, were likely caused by creasing while the painting was rolled, perhaps during an early journey across the Atlantic. The painting also suffered extensive paint loss across the bottom, as well as creasing and abrasion to the right side, particularly in the sky area.
At least two early treatment campaigns could be distinguished. The tacking margins of the painting had been cut away and the painting lined to another fabric support. Blistering of the paint on Wolfe’s torso, flattened peaks of impasto and the pointed imprint of an iron suggest damaging heat and pressure were used during this lining procedure. Early cleaning of surface coatings had been undertaken to varying degrees on different parts of the painting. Retouching had been applied over intermittent residues of dark varnish and small paint losses had been filled and retouched. In addition, successive layers of varnish and tinted varnish layers had been applied.
The painting was examined thoroughly before treatment. X-radiography and infrared reflectography, undertaken by scientific documentation technologist Jeremy Powell, revealed the extent of paint loss and additional information on the artist’s technique. During extensive scientific analysis by conservation scientists Jane Sirois and Elizabeth Moffatt, small samples taken from the painting were analysed and viewed in cross section to reveal the layered structure of the painting and to identify the pigments and media used. This technical examination, in addition to extensive research, consultation and collaboration, was required to develop a cleaning strategy. Kim Muir, advanced conservation intern, researched the artist’s technique and writings, consulted with other conservators who had treated paintings by Barry, and studied sources available on the materials and techniques of other British artists of the time. This work involved consultation and collaboration with colleagues at CCI, Andrea Kirkpatrick (curator at the New Brunswick Museum), conservators and curators from the National Gallery of Canada, and conservators from international institutions.
A cleaning strategy was developed that involved cleaning in layers so that the appearance could be assessed constantly in order to determine how much further to proceed. It became clear that a pigmented varnish applied after the lining, but close to the painting’s surface, was responsible for a dark cast which dominated the appearance of the painting. Where underlying layers permitted, this coating was removed and, in most areas, a thin “skin” of varnish, slightly darkened with black particles, was left intact. Where glaze layers were found, such as in the red uniforms, cleaning of the dark varnish was done minimally.
The exhibition “The Many Deaths of General Wolfe: Paintings by James Barry and Benjamin West,” which presented the first, unique opportunity to compare and study these two major works, took place in December 2000 at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. At this point, varnish removal in the foreground area had not been undertaken. It was decided that, for the exhibition, a varnish would be applied and inpainting would be done. Afterward, a decision would be made about whether the foreground should be cleaned. One difficulty was the presence of brown glazes in this area. Such glazes are difficult to distinguish visually from the darkened or pigmented coatings and are soluble in the same solvents used to remove the latter. It was decided that the painting would benefit from additional cleaning. The recently applied varnish was removed and the underlying varnish in the foreground area was thinned slightly. Details of the design, subtle colour nuances, and a slight brightening of highlights were revealed, all of which restored a greater illusion of depth and a better indication of the spatial relationships established by the artist. Removing the extensive overpaint also revealed details of the image, such as the blanket covering the fallen Native person. The origin of the conspicuous number “410” placed on the tomahawk is unknown. It is possible it was applied as a collection number and was therefore left in the hope that it will provide a clue to where the painting was during its missing years.
Due to extensive, uneven damage and previous restoration treatment early in its life, the appearance of the painting has been dramatically altered since it was first completed. With the removal of the subsequent obscuring coatings, we are able to better appreciate the portrayal that Barry intended. The painting is the focus of an upcoming exhibition at the New Brunswick Museum and will then return to permanent display as research on the remaining secrets of its provenance continues.
Treatment of this painting held many challenges, yet it also had its rewards. The opportunity to work so closely with curators Catherine Johnston (National Gallery of Canada) and Gilbert Gignac (Library and Archives of Canada) was a great privilege and pleasure. To see the painting now, in a condition closer to the monumental impact that Barry intended, is indeed extremely satisfying.