Conservation initiative uncovers mystery portrait from Sewanee’s Permanent Collection

dscf4756-1Tess Steele

Executive Staff

On Thursday, February 23, students, faculty, and community members gathered at the University Archives and Special Collections for the opening of the “Creativity and Craftsmanship: Selections from the Permanent Collection” exhibit, with guest speaker Craig Crawford lecturing on “Discovering Artist’s Intentions: The Challenges of Art Conservation.”


Prior to the opening, members of the Archives and Special Collection staff met with The Purple to discuss the collection, its vision, and the creative curatorial process. This show emphasizes art from the broadest definition, and encompasses fine arts, including oil painting, as well as applied arts, including textiles, ceramics, porcelain, and other “creative interpretations” of ordinary objects.


“We wanted to display the depth and breadth of our Permanent Collection, not just the fine arts collection,” said DebbieLee Landi, Director of University Archives and Special Collections. The exhibit does just that, featuring works of various media and styles from the 16th to the 21st century.


Visual Resources Curator Mary O’Neill is largely responsible for the art selected for the exhibit. Additionally, she provided background information and labels for her chosen pieces. In her 28 years at the University of the South, O’Neill has yet to encounter another exhibit that is exclusively from the University’s art collection, making “this exhibit unique because it is all from the Permanent Collection,” according to O’Neill.


Landi is excited that the exhibit speaks to the school’s history. “Over the years, Sewanee has had so many benefactors. Most of these works have been donated, and we wanted to call attention to these benefactors. The history of the archives is tied to the history of the University.”


This history is seen in several works, including an Underground Railroad-inspired quilt. The quilt was made and recently donated by the sister of the late Professor Houston Roberson as a tribute to him and his work at the university.


The school’s religious connections are also highlighted through the selections of Matt Reynolds, Assistant Director of University Archives and Special Collections.  He included a chalice and other clerical pieces, speaking to Sewanee’s Episcopalian history while adding diversity to the exhibit. Furniture saved from the 2014 burning of Rebel’s Rest are also featured, and will eventually be relocated to the Sewanee Inn and to the new offices of the Sewanee Review after the exhibit.


“We are not just telling people to view these pieces. We want people to look at them from another perspective. This is not just art for art’s sake,” Landi emphasized.


With a limited budget and thousands of pieces in the Permanent Collection, the Provost created the Permanent Collection Working Group, an association which evaluates the monetary and historical significance of the collection to determine which pieces will be conserved.


Unsurprisingly, there are few art conservators in the Cumberland Plateau region. Through her experience at Furman University, Landi met Crawford, a professional associate of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. She eventually recruited him for the conservation projects at Sewanee, where he collaborated with the Permanent Collection Working Group, helping to select and later conserve oil paintings deemed most worthy.


The duality between the artwork and the conservation process adds another dimension to the experience of art. To push the theme of conversation, Crawford spoke at the exhibition opening, showing images and providing explanations of the conservation process required for the Sewanee paintings he restored for the exhibit. Audience members learned of nuances in the conservation process, seeing firsthand the effects of discolored varnish, prior conservation attempts, and time’s natural deterioration.


“I find cleaning fun. You can discover the qualities of the artist coming back,” shared Crawford, as he discussed how different works look once conserved.


The final oil painting Crawford discussed was the greatest surprise and curiosity of his conservation work at Sewanee. This mystery portrait was conserved because of the canvas’ old age, contrasting with the early 20th century style of the portrait. This inconsistency between the age of the canvas and of the portrait encouraged Crawford to investigate the solubility of the paint layers, revealing a much older portrait was below the surface of the top portrait.


“[The painting] did not look right. The topography of the surface was uneven, so I suspected it was overpainted,” said Crawford. His assumptions were correct, and he went on to completely remove the top portrait, revealing a portrait of what is likely St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. While the age of the original portrait is unknown, it is certainly much older and of different, and arguable better, artistic quality than the top portrait.


Director of the University Art Gallery and humanities professor Shelley MacLaren asked Crawford about the ethics of art conservation, initiating conversation about the legal aspects of conservation. This is part of the larger discussion of an artist’s intentions, artistic integrity, and the commercial aspects of art. Older canvases can be repainted to add market value to works, prioritizing the aesthetic and commercial qualities of a painting instead of the value of the original condition. Crawford stood by his decision to completely remove the top portrait because of the financial and dishonest motivations behind the overpainting.


Inadequate records left the Archives staff with practically no information about the portrait, adding even more mystery to the painting of St. Ignatius. As the lecture was coming to a close, audience member Dr. Waring McCrady surprised the room by revealing previously unknown information about the portrait’s provenance. In his childhood, McCrady had lived in Fulford Hall during his father’s career as Vice Chancellor. He recalled that the portrait had hung in Fulford, and he was surprised by the intrigue surrounding the portrait.


“My sister use to play piano under that painting. Little did she know there was a Jesuit watching her the whole time,” said McCrady with a smile.


Visitors can enjoy “Creativity and Craftsmanship: Selections from the Permanent Collection” at the University Archives and Special Collections until July 30.