William Trego (American 1858-1909), The Rescue of the Colors (Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia)
The first step in the conservation process is to face the surface of the painting with a layer of Japanese tissue paper. Once the paper is placed onto the painting, a thin layer of liquid Beva Solution is saturated over the surface of the painting. The painting is faced to protect the paint layer during the lining procedure. The canvas is then removed from the stretcher. Once removed, it is placed on a custom made vacuum pressure hot-table to begin the lining process. The hot-table allows for an even heating of the canvas. It is at this time that a light moisture treatment is given to the canvas. A Mylar interleaf is placed on the back of the canvas so that the handwritten title and location of the battle are not obscured by the new lining. The canvas is then lined to a secondary support of an acrylic fabric which has no weave imperfections. A window is cut in this acrylic fabric, which allows the handwritten on the back to show through.
Once the relining is complete, the canvas is reattached to its original stretcher. The Japanese paper is then removed from the face of the painting. Our conservator must then test areas of the painting for cleaning. Each pigment responds differently to the various solvents and cleaning agents. A cotton swab is used to perform the cleaning tests. The swab is carefully rubbed over a small area until no further improvement can be detected. Trego's, Rescue of the Colors, had been housed in a museum with a coal burning furnace. Over the years the coal dust and soot had been ground into the medium – this leftover dust was stubbornly attached to the painting surface even after the initial cleaning process was complete. To properly clean it, a light abrasive powder had to be introduced with the surfactant; this allowed the conservator to remove the soot without damaging the paint layer. After each step during the cleaning procedure, the process is neutralized with mineral spirits. This keeps the surfactant and cleaning agents from continuing to react with the pigments.
After the painting has been cleaned, a separation coat of varnish is applied. This separation coat acts as a barrier between the original painting and any subsequent filling and inpainting that is done by the conservator. Our conservator uses dental tools to carefully fill and texture any losses to the painting. He then in-paints using special non-darkening restoration colors. Once complete, a special final spray coat of varnish is applied.
In addition to the painting, the frame also needed conservation treatment. The frame is an 8-inch wide ornate high-relief leaf and berry design. It was gilded in gold leaf, but had become heavily soiled over the years. The frame was meticulously cleaned with cotton swabs. Our conservators had to painstakingly clean each and every crevice and crease to ensure no residue was left behind. After the frame was cleaned and the brilliant gold revealed, the many losses to the frame had to be fitted and/or re-sculpted using an epoxy putty. They were then re-gilded and antiqued to match the original gold.
There was also a detailed pediment that had to be restored and attached to the frame. The pediment was carefully cleaned using cotton swabs. Areas of the existing lettering had to be re-painted using restoration paints. There were also areas of the pediment that had to be rebuilt and re-sculpted due to earlier damage.
Once the frame was fully conserved, the painting was placed back into the frame, and a protective archival backing was affixed to the reverse to protect the painting from damage.