By Sam Daleo
Read the full December issue of Viewpoints.
In October of 1985, the McFaddin-Ward House was being transformed into a museum. Part of this transformation involved the cleaning of the parlor and breakfast room/conservatory. Museum staff contracted with the Texas Conservation Center, at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, in Canyon, to undertake this project.
The parlor and breakfast room/conservatory are very unique rooms for many reasons, especially, for their canvas covered, hand decorated walls and ceilings. Since early 1907, when the home was first occupied, a layer of grime, caused by pollution from opened windows, cigar and cigarette smoke, and other factors, had slowly accumulated. The staff felt a professional cleaning by trained conservators was necessary. That proved correct. While work on the breakfast room/conservatory went smoothly, work on the parlor did not. As sometimes happens, an unexpected problem can necessitate a unique solution. The parlor presented the staff and conservators with just that.
Conservation work on the parlor began on January 5, 1986, and was completed on February 3, 1986. The parlor is comprised of eleven oil on canvas panels of various sizes including a 15×17 single piece for the ceiling. The panels are glued to the plaster walls and ceiling using lead white oil paint as the adhesive. All are painted pink and decorated with a beautiful, hand painted (by an traveling artist) rose vine. A painted, gilt, wooden decoration also enhances the walls. All of this, canvas and wooden decoration, had to be cleaned.
The conservators had originally thought the cleaning could be done with a solvent. Everything they tried, however, was too strong and removed paint, or not strong enough, leaving dirt. They, finally, settled on Pink Pearl erasers. That’s right, just like those used in school! This was a technique the head conservator, Tony Rajer, had used before on small paintings, but never on this scale. Doing the work with erasers was going to take much longer than original cleaning estimates and would cost more due to a longer work time and extra help that would be needed. Tony (working with two assistants), immediately, began hiring extra technicians to assist, about fifteen in all. Many were students from Lamar University, who responded to a “help wanted” ad. I was lucky enough to be asked to help and assisted evenings and Saturdays, as did curator Clark Pierce’s girlfriend, “Wiz”. Four scaffolds were erected, erasers were purchased and work began. When Tony exhausted Beaumont’s supply of Pink Pearl erasers, he went to Houston and began buying them there. I do not know how many erasers it took, but quite a few, as one might imagine. Work started around eight in the morning and would, regularly, go until ten or eleven at night. At the end of each workday, the room was cleaned, vacuuming and sweeping up eraser dust that had accumulated.
The process involved not only erasing the walls and ceiling, but, also, inpainting with acrylic emulsion paints and watercolor on the wooden decoration, as needed. Some of this decoration had to be re-attached in places with white glue. The consolidation of flaking paint was, also, necessary in some places. This was done with the adhesive BEVA 371. Wrinkles in the canvas were glued down, also using the BEVA 371. When all was completed, the entire surface area was cleaned with a 5% solution of TSP (trisodium phosphate) in water applied with cotton swabs. Finally, a hand applied surface coating of Soluvar Matte varnish was used to protect the cleaned canvas.
The work was hard, dirty and tedious, but it was, also, extremely rewarding. Watching as the room came back to life, as it had been in 1907, made it worth the effort. It was a great experience to work with Tony Rajer and the other conservators. They had very positive attitudes and were extremely confident and professional. Tony decided to leave one small area, next to the radiator, un-cleaned to show how dirty the room had been. It is not visible from the tour path. It is necessary to crawl behind the furniture to see it. Whenever I do, I am still amazed at how dirty the room once was, and how beautiful it looks now.
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