Two artists collaborate across the centuries: one working with a brush, and the other with a micro spatula. Curator Barbara Luck and conservator Pam Young describe the restoration of a rare watercolor.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions.
Imagine you're in a museum gallery, looking at a painting. As you stand and stare, you might think about the subject, the light, the colors, the artist – but probably the last thing that you'd think about is a lab. For many paintings though, the lab is the first stop on the journey to that museum wall.
Pam Young: My name is Pam Young, I'm paper conservator for the Foundation. Well, let's go into the lab, and I'll show you one process that's taking place right now that is removal of discolored adhesive from the back of four prints from Collet's "Modern Love" series. (Door opens. Loud fan noise.)
This is Ikuko Takiama. Ikuko is an intern in the paper conservation lab and she's working on a device called a suction panel. It is a small, perforated aluminum panel that's hooked up to a suction pump. And, she's working with solvents that will remove adhesive stains on the reverse side, at the corners. The solvents that she's using are reasonably toxic, so overhead is a fume extractor.
So she's putting a blotter down, and you can hear how the suction changes as the air goes through the blotter. And then she pulls the print over to make sure it's on top of where the maximum suction is drawing, and she uses a cotton swab to gently apply the solvent. She's being very careful here, because she's working over the design layer. So it's a procedure that necessarily goes slowly because we want to make sure that what we're doing to the print – the solvents we are applying – are not going to have an adverse effect on either the paper or the design layer, which in this case, includes printing ink and watercolor washes. (Fan sound fades out.)
Lloyd: Joining me now in the studio are Colonial Williamsburg curator Barbara Luck and conservator Pam Young to tell us the history of a rare watercolor, and the painstaking process of restoring it.
I suppose the first question is, what watercolor?
Barbara Luck: The watercolor in question is a depiction, a full-length depiction of a little girl, an enslaved girl, we think.
Lloyd: Who painted it?
Barbara: It was done by Mary Custis, who, in the same year, married Robert E. Lee.
Lloyd: A very unlikely person to paint a watercolor of a slave girl.
Barbara: Not really. Mary Custis' mother was very concerned with slavery and with the education of slaves on the plantation where she grew up. I think her daughter imbued a lot of that same spirit – her concern with slavery, and with educating the slaves on the plantation.
Lloyd: There was a lot of work to be done, I understand, to get it back in condition where you could throw it on a wall and say, "There it is, people."
Pam: This is it. This is a detail of it. You'll notice though, the stippling, the application of the paint. How Mary Anna Custis has applied the paint in a really technically adept way. The combination of the brown and the blue giving the effect of the child's skin in a combination of tones. This was not a slapdash sort of thing. The background as well, the rendering of the sky shows that she did have some training in watercolor painting.
Lloyd: What year is this?
Barbara: 1830. It's actually dated. There is a date.
You remarked on the fact that it was not in good condition. Pam will elaborate on all the extraordinary steps she took to ensure that it was exhibit worthy. It actually descended in a fairly good state. It wasn't torn, it wasn't something that was disregarded in its own time. I think it was cherished and cared for, to some extent. Which doesn't mean that there wasn't a lot of work for Pam to do in order to get it exhibitable.
Lloyd: As I understand it, it was not one watercolor on one piece of paper all by itself.
Pam: Here's the drawing that was on the larger piece of paper that the watercolor was mounted to. The watercolor was mounted on the reverse side of this pencil sketch.
Lloyd: That makes it even more difficult.
Pam: Actually, it doesn't. My feeling is, this watercolor was attached to a blank piece of paper at some point. Somebody – maybe for the sale, to make it more saleable – attached it to the verso side of this drawing. It's interesting, the two images. They're so different. The watercolor painting of the enslaved girl, and then the pencil drawing of a cavalryman on horseback doing an exercise where they'd ride by and try to slice a watermelon in half.
This may well have been done at West Point when Jeb Stuart was there. I guess we haven't mentioned yet that Mary Anna Custis gave the watercolor drawing of the enslaved girl to Jeb Stuart when he was a student there and Mary Anna Custis was married to Robert E. Lee. He was the commander of West Point.
Lloyd: You've got this piece of paper. You've got a cavalry officer on one side, and a slave girl on the other side. How do you get the two apart so that both are preserved?
Pam: In this case, I used what's called a micro spatula to separate between the back of the watercolor and the larger piece of paper with the pencil drawing on the other side.
Lloyd: You're separating the piece of paper with the micro spatula.
Pam: Right. And that allowed us to look at the reverse side of the watercolor painting to see if there were any further inscriptions, and in fact, there were not. But it also allowed me to examine the piece and propose a treatment that would stabilize the object so that it would last longer – that's the conservation treatment. The treatment also made the painting look better.
Lloyd: What do you see in that watercolor of that girl that the casual viewer in a museum might not see?
Barbara: It's a rarity in the first place because it is a depiction of a slave girl, an enslaved girl. Depictions of slaves were rare, were rarely done. So many artists deemed the subject matter unworthy of their attention. So when we do, in the rare instances when we do find depictions of enslaved people, they tend to be stereotypical images, or caricatures. On the other hand, this watercolor, part of what makes it so rare is that it's very believable. It looks like a real child.
Lloyd: A little girl.
Barbara: Well it does. She's doing something ordinary, everyday. It's almost as if she was taking laundry water and Mary Custis said, "Can you turn around and hold still for just a minute?" It's very spontaneous. The other rare thing about it is, I think, the child's demeanor and stance. She looks very self-possessed, not that that was unusual. It's just unusual to find it in a depiction of a slave. She is very straightforward, very at ease with herself. White depictions of enslaved people, as I said, tended to be stereotyped and caricatured. This one is just very credible. We sense, in looking at her, that she was a living, breathing child. That's a very unusual thing to find.
Lloyd: When this is finished, she will turn and go on about her business?
Barbara: One gets that feeling.
Lloyd: While you were working on this, to get it ready, how long?
Pam: It was about 30 hours from beginning to end. It always begins with a preliminary examination testing to determine how the watercolor is going to react to the treatment that I have in mind. Then a condition report and treatment proposal are finished. Photographic documentation is done before treatment. This is the point at which I talk to Barbara about what I propose to do, and we decide together that this is in the best interest of the object to be treated.
Lloyd: Have you ever hit something where you said, "If I try to treat this and get it ready for the museum so we can hang it on the wall, I'm going to ruin it?"
Pam: No, because that's something that I know well beforehand during the testing and analysis. I would never propose something where the risks outweighed the benefits. It always has to be the other way around for us to even consider proceeding.
Lloyd: You said there was a treatment. It must not involve water, or it wouldn't work with the watercolor.
Pam: Actually it does. In this case, there were adhesive stains on the reverse side of the watercolor painting. Those needed to be removed so that the staining didn't come through to the front. There were also spots, pretty obvious and disfiguring spots that were the result of impurities in the sizing. Sizing is a material that's brushed on a piece of paper that coats it in a way that anything that's put on the paper subsequently – like watercolor or ink, in the case of writing – doesn't soak into the paper, but essentially sits on the top a bit. So I have to devise ways to introduce water, but in a very limited way that's not going to risk the paint layer on the watercolor painting. We're really concerned about having the objects that we put on exhibit reflect the amount of attention and care that Colonial Williamsburg gives them.