Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/May 1886/The Care of Pictures and Prints
|THE CARE OF PICTURES AND PRINTS.|
AMONG the most curious apparent inconsistencies of human nature is the possibly complete independence of the productive and the conservative states of mind. It seems as if the talent for producing things often led, of itself, to a carelessness about their preservation, perhaps from a feeling that it is easy to replace what may happen to be deteriorated. The most conspicuous instance of this temper is that of Turner, among artists. He was the most productive of painters and the most accumulative, liking to keep his own works about him much more than painters generally do; and yet at the same time he does not appear to have given a thought to the preservation of the works he so greatly valued. His pictures were carelessly kept in a gallery that was never repaired; his drawings were never arranged till Mr. Ruskin arranged them six years after Turner's death, and it cost Mr. Ruskin a whole autumn and winter (1857), with the help of two assistants, working "every day, all day long, and often far into the night," to convert the Turnerian mess of confusion into order.
Had it been confusion or disorder simply, the evil would have been completely remediable by careful labor; but unfortunately the same carelessness that led to disorder involved carelessness about preservation. Many of the drawings were eaten away by damp and mildew, "and falling into dust at the edges, in capes and bays of fragile decay." Others were worm-eaten, some were mouse-eaten, "many torn half-way through." Turner's way of keeping his drawings was to roll them up in bundles and cram them into drawers. The rolled bundles do not even appear to have been protected by paper closed at the end against dust, and the squeezing seems to have flattened them; for Mr. Ruskin tells us that "dust of thirty years' accumulation, black, dense, and sooty, lay in the rents of the crushed and crumpled edges of these flattened bundles." There were also numbers of pocket sketching-books "dropping to pieces at the back, tearing laterally whenever opened, and every drawing rubbing itself into the one opposite."
What strikes us most in this disorder is not so much the deterioration of the sketches and drawings, which Turner possibly may not have foreseen, as the intolerable inconvenience of a system that must have made reference so difficult for the artist himself as to be always tedious and often impossible. A collection of studies should always be so arranged that any study whatever, even down to the most trifling memorandum, may be found at a moment's notice. The care of an artist's collection of studies is not, however, the subject of the present paper, which is addressed rather to the lay possessors of works of art than to professional artists.
Turner's way of keeping his drawings is a model of everything that the collector ought to avoid. Nobody but an artist would think of keeping drawings rolled up in bundles, for the simple reason that you can never see a drawing properly unless it lies flat. Then we learn that Turner exposed his collection to every one of the enemies that a prudent keeper provides against. These enemies are damp, dust, and vermin. In the case of water-color and oil pictures there are two other foes, light and darkness, a water-color being liable to fade in the light, and an oil-picture to turn yellow for the want of it.
Damp and mildew are often spoken of as two enemies, but in fact they are only one, as mildew is a fungus or collection of fungi thriving only in damp situations. Damp, as everybody knows, is retained moisture, or, in other words, water diffused in minute particles that are held by some other substance so as to be prevented from joining each other and flowing away, while they do not get access to the air so as to be carried off by evaporation. Some substances are extremely favorable to the retention of damp, and it so happens that the millboard commonly employed by framers to put behind prints, and by book-binders who make portfolios, is one of those substances which absorb and retain damp with particular facility. It is employed by copper-plate printers to dry impressions, which are placed between sheets of mill-board under pressure, the boards soon drinking up the water contained in the wetted paper. The ingenuity of framers has led them to select this (of all substances in the world) to put behind engravings that are hung up on walls; and, when the walls happen to be damp, it follows as a matter of course that the engravings are spoiled by mildew or rust-spot. If the reader has ever lived in a house that is even moderately damp, he can hardly have failed to notice that the boards behind framed engravings swell and bulge out, which is the result of an increase in the bulk and area of the boards exactly proportionate to the quantity of water they have absorbed. When there is a sufficient supply of water certain fungoid growths will begin on the surface of the print under the glass, exactly like the growth of plants from the damp earth in a garden or conservatory. If there is iron in the paper here and there (which often happens), there will be spots of oxide of iron, or what we call rust, to give a pleasing variety of color, and if one of them happens to occur on a face, it must of course add greatly to its charm. Wooden backings are safer; and I have seen a room where the engravings with millboard behind them were all more or less spoiled by damp, while a large engraving with a thick wooden backing was entirely uninjured. Nevertheless, I would rather not trust to deal boards, as it is well known that deal is very absorbent of moisture. I remember having a heavy block of deal dead-wood removed from the hull of a boat, and when it was sawed through the water oozed freely out of every fiber. Had it been submitted to a powerful pressure, such as that from a hydraulic press, there can be no doubt that it would have been like squeezing a wetted sponge.
The necessity for careful precaution about the backing of framed engravings is not simply due to the permeability of walls that let the damp come through them; it may be also due to mere condensation on the inner surface of the wall even when it is well built and impermeable. This is best seen on a painted wall, as papers can absorb a great deal of water without letting it be immediately visible. In a very cold winter the external walls of a house become chilled throughout their mass, and when they are painted on the inside a sudden rise in temperature will produce visible condensation from the damp air, because the wall has not yet had time to raise its own temperature to that of the atmosphere. If there are engravings against the wall, they will suffer as much as if the wall itself were damp throughout its substance; for if the backings are absorbent they will drink in a quantity of moisture from the streaming wall-surface, which they will afterward slowly give off to the engraving for the encouragement of fungi and rust-spots. If oil-pictures are hung against a wall of this kind, the canvas will absorb moisture (unless certain precautions are taken, of which we may give an account presently), and then the increase in its bulk and area will cause it to hang loosely on the stretching frames. The only way to combat condensation is by heating the air sufficiently to warm the walls themselves, when, of course, it must cease. Nature herself puts an end to it ultimately in the same way if the mild weather continues, but more slowly, as it takes some time to raise the temperature of a mass of stone by a gentle increase of heat. A thin inner wall, or wainscot separated by a little space from the outer wall, may prevent condensation, because the thin partition, having little substance, rises easily in temperature. It would be quite worth while, in a house where valuable works of art are hung, to have thin inner walls with a circulation of warmed air between them and the thick external wall of-the building. Tapestry is a very effective remedy against visible condensation, as it absorbs a great quantity of water, which it afterward gives off slowly into the atmosphere, and it may prevent or greatly diminish real condensation by being more easily warmed than a mass of stone can be.
The evil of injury from damp ought, however, to be combated as much as possible in the framing of the pictures and prints themselves. I will begin with prints because they are more common, so that the preservation of them concerns a greater number of my readers. In the first place, I would never trust to a backing of mill-board or pasteboard. A print may appear to be safe with such a backing for years, and then there may be a damper winter than usual, or you may go and live in a damper house, or you may be absent, and the house may not be heated with sufficient regularity, with the result of unexpected injury to your print. Why not make it safe from the beginning? It is easy to do this, so that the print may be hung on a damp wall without danger. Instead of mill-board put sheet-zinc for a backing. It need not be thick, and you can always get a piece of sheet-zinc as big as the largest print. By way of completing precautions I am careful to expel any moisture there may be in the print itself by heating it well over a spirit-lamp before inclosing it between the zinc and the glass, and instead of ordinary paste for the slips of paper that join the glass to the inside of the frame and the backing to the back of the frame I employ a strong solution of gum-lac in spirits of wine, which is impervious to moisture. The print is thus inclosed in a little space that is not only water-tight, but even air-tight as well, so that damp air can not get to it. I have tried the experiment of hanging prints so framed against the dampest walls that I could find, and they have passed more than one wet winter in perfect safety, while prints framed in the usual manner, with mill-board backings, were soon spoiled by mildew and rust-spots when hung upon the same walls. All that has just been said about the protection of framed prints applies with still greater force to water-color drawings, as a water-color is far more delicate in its constitution than a print, and therefore much less easily restored to its first appearance after it has been damaged by mildew.
Engravings can not be injured at all by light, the only effect of which is to bleach slightly the paper on which they are printed, but it appears to be quite an ascertained fact that water-color drawings fade when they are painted in full colors, though water-color monochromes in sepia, bistre, or Indian-ink may resist light almost indefinitely. If, then, the object is to preserve water-colors for future generations, they ought to be kept in cabinets; but it is also intelligible that the owner of a collection may reasonably sacrifice a few drawings in his lifetime (and the sacrifice is only partial) to the satisfaction of seeing them more frequently and of ornamenting his walls with them. An intermediate plan with regard to water-color drawings is to have case-frames that allow one drawing to be easily substituted for another when the mounts are of the same size. The drawing is then exhibited for a short time only, and the owner has the refreshment of change on the walls of his room. The same plan may be followed with prints, simply for the sake of change.
With regard to the keeping of drawings in portfolios, there are reasons for believing that portfolios are not entirely safe. I have known a case in which prints in portfolios suffered visibly from damp, when every possible precaution seemed to have been taken for their preservation. The portfolios were kept in a closet six feet by eight, which was selected because it had no outer wall, and, though there was not a fireplace in the closet itself, the door of it opened on a room where a fire was constantly kept. The closet was believed to be the driest place in the house, and the house itself was not in a damp situation, being exposed to all the winds that blow, and built upon rather elevated ground. It happened, however, that the outer walls were built of a porous kind of sandstone, which retained moisture in the winter, and as the portfolios in which the prints were kept were made of mill-board, also a retainer of moisture, the prints were really damp in spite of the carefully chosen closet. They showed the signs of damp as much, almost, as if they had been hung upon a damp wall with a mill-board backing to each frame. It is plain, then, that the portfolio does not afford absolute security, and, indeed, the mill-board of which portfolios are commonly made is in itself an element of danger. Shallow tin boxes, with removable lids made like those of pill-boxes, are much safer than the common portfolio. I have alluded in another paper (on the "Poor Collector) to cabinets with shelves of thin wood separated from each other by small intervals. Prints or water-color drawings may be kept in such cabinets without other protection than a sheet of paper as a protection against the small quantity of dust that finds its way into the interior. The cabinets should be placed in rooms where there are regular fires, and when the room is thoroughly warmed the doors of the cabinets should be occasionally left open and their contents exposed to the air. As to the wood of which they are to be made, it should be one of the least absorbent woods.
Well-closed cabinets or tin boxes are the best protection against dust. If portfolios are used, they ought always to have flaps, as without them dust is sure to get in and spoil the edges and sometimes part of the margins of the prints. The effect of dust in course of time is to discolor paper permanently. Suppose you lay a sheet of paper on another that is rather larger, so that the second shall not be entirely covered by the first, and leave the two in a quiet place where dust will settle upon them, the unprotected margin of the second sheet will in course of time become discolored and show a contrast. Many drawings are so delicate that the dust can not be cleared from them without injuring the drawings themselves. Unfixed charcoals and pastels are the most delicate drawings of all, and require the most perfect protection against dust. The tidy housekeeper who dusts the unfinished charcoal on the easel is alluded to with horror in the little treatises on that art as the most destructive of all its enemies. As the charcoal itself is nothing but unfixed dust, it obeys the housekeeper's feather brush only too readily, and disappears with the other dust that means nothing and is valueless. The housekeeper in such cases seems strikingly like the blind destructive forces of the natural world which respect genius and its productions no more than the commonest matter; she is like the sea which drowns Shelley and rolls the fragment of a Greek statue among its pebbles.
Protection against damp and dust may seem less necessary in the case of oil-pictures, but here also it has its importance. Unquestionably an oil-picture has a much stronger constitution than a water-color, yet it is admitted that some colors used in oil-paintings are affected unfavorably by moisture, and are insufficiently protected by pure oil. De Mayerne affirms that indigo fades in oil without varnish, but is durable under varnish, and the following quotation from Sir Charles Eastlake's "Materials for a History of Oil-Painting" will show the peculiar kind of danger that may arise from damp:
"The effect of moisture on verdigris, even when the color is mixed with oil, as noticed by Leonardo da Vinci, shows that such a vehicle, unless it be half resinified, affords no durable protection to some colors in humid climates; and the efficacy of resinous solutions, as hydrofuges, is at once exemplified by the fact that they answer the end which (unprepared) oil alone is insufficient to accomplish. Colors which are easily affected by humidity require to be protected according to the extent of the evil. Whatever precaution of this kind was requisite in Italy was doubly needed in Flanders. The superficial varnish which sufficed in the extreme case referred to by Leonardo was incorporated with the color by the oil-painters of the North. So in proportion as the Flemish painters adopted a thinner vehicle, the protecting varnish was applied on colors which the Italians could safely leave exposed, at all events till a general varnish was spread over the work. It will be remembered that this last method was unnecessary in the original Flemish process, according to which the colors, being more or less mixed with varnish, and being painted at once, remained glossy, and needed no additional defense."
It would not be safe, however, to conclude from this that a simple coat of varnish is a perfect insurance against damp, for varnish itself may be ultimately penetrated by damp, as Field showed in his chapter on the "Fugacity of Colors." Here is Field's caution on the subject, which deserves attention:
"Others, with some reason, have imagined that when pigments are locked up in varnishes and oils they are safe from all possibility of change; and there would be much more truth in this position if we had an impenetrable varnish—and even then it would not hold with respect to the action of light, however well it might exclude the influences of air and moisture; but, in truth, varnishes and oils themselves yield to changes of temperature, to the action of a humid atmosphere, and to other chemical influences: their protection of color from change is, therefore, far from perfect."
The best way, then, to keep oil-pictures in a state of safety is not to trust much to their power of resisting damp, but to treat them just as if they were notoriously delicate things like water-color drawings, although in reality we know that their constitution is more robust. An oil-picture, it is well to remember, may be attacked by damp from behind. If it is hung on a damp wall, the canvas will absorb damp from the wall, like the mill-board behind a water-color, and this damp will reach the colors through the priming. The proof that canvases absorb damp is that they hang flaccid on their stretching-frames when there is much moisture in the atmosphere. It is some protection to have the back of the canvas protected by a coat of paint applied with varnish, but a still better protection is to have two canvases on the same stretching-frame, the one that bears the work of the painter and another behind it with a coat of paint on both sides. The practice of having two canvases on the same stretcher has been adopted by more than one modern painter for various reasons. One reason is that an accidental blow to the canvas from behind, or an indentation from some angular object, may produce a fracture of the paint in the picture a fracture not immediately visible, perhaps, but likely to show itself later.
It is generally of no use to propose anything that has not been already adopted to some extent in practice, but I may call attention to a plan which is successfully adopted by house-painters to protect wall-papers from damp. Their way (or one of their ways) is first to apply tin-foil to the wall, making it adhere by means of a thick coat of white-lead. This is found to be a good protection for the wallpaper which is pasted on the tin-foil. It would probably, in the same way, be an excellent protection for pictures if the double-canvas system were adopted and the under canvas covered with tin-foil upon white-lead. It has been remarked that a certain kind of decorative work used in the middle ages consisted of paint applied on tin-foil and protected by glass. Here was a double protection against damp, the glass before and the tin-foil behind, the glass answering to the varnish on a picture, but with more complete efficacy.
Glass is now largely used in the National Gallery for the protection of oil-pictures, but, unfortunately, the common objection that it does not allow the spectator to see the picture easily is but too well founded. What we really see is too often the reflection of a group of visitors to the gallery, almost as in a looking-glass. This happens especially when the picture is a dark one, and many of the finest old pictures are dark. We are sometimes told that it is an affair of focusing the eye, and that if we look as we ought to do at the picture itself, and not at the reflections, we shall not see the reflections. What really happens is this: If we look at the reflections of the visitors we see them wonderfully well, down to the most minute inventions of the feminine costume, and if we look at the picture we see it in a confused way intermingled with the reflections. This being so, it follows that private owners are not much encouraged to put their pictures under glass. It may be objected that water-colors are habitually protected in this way, and that no one complains. True, but in the first place, with regard to water-colors we have no choice, as any fly could spoil an unprotected water-color in a minute; in the second place, a drawing in watercolor is usually of small dimensions, so that it is more easily seen; and, lastly, water-colors are generally paler than oil-pictures, so that they do not make such perfect mirrors. A dark old oil-picture with a sheet of plate-glass before it is, in certain lights, almost as good a mirror as if the glass were lined with quicksilver. We can hardly, then, include glass among the means to be recommended for protecting oil-pictures from damp, and must trust rather to the dryness of the atmosphere in which the pictures are kept; and yet it is necessary to avoid excessive heating, which in certain cases produces or favors cracking and destroys by detaching paint from the priming of the canvas.
Canvas may not seem a very durable material, and yet, on the whole, it is preferable to wooden panels, for it may truly be said of wood, as it was said of the arch in architecture, that it is never at rest. It is always either swelling or contracting, and if a composite panel is not quite scientifically constructed, it is sure to tear itself and show fissures. Panels are therefore usually employed for small works only, and for these copper would be better still, though it has been used rarely. If a panel is well painted on the back, it will absorb damp less readily, and this precaution is very easily taken.
The art of removing a painting from an old to a new canvas is now so well understood that the operation, which many years ago seemed formidable, is now performed every day without attracting attention. In this way an old picture gets a new lease of life; but the question remains whether the new lease might not be made longer, and indeed extended almost indefinitely, by impregnating the canvas with something that would increase its durability without weakening its substance. It is well known that the fiber of the threads in canvas is so weakened by the application of oil-paint, or oil alone, that it afterward is easily torn, and it is weakened in the same way by some other applications.
Oil-pictures unprotected by glass are always quietly accumulating a coat of dust and dirt, which, in course of time, unless it is occasionally removed, makes the hazardous process called "picture-cleaning" present itself as an ineluctable necessity if the work be visible at all. The two preservative cleanings are first simply dusting with a light feather-brush and an occasional careful washing with a soft rag, some warm water, and a little soap, but not a strong soap. I remember a house where a new Scotch house-maid, who was alarmingly industrious, was discovered one morning on the point of cleaning all the pictures in a certain room with soft-soap and a scrubbing-brush. She was about to apply the same treatment to the frames, on which there was a good deal of burnished gilding, which would all have immediately disappeared. As for the pictures themselves, if they were covered with old well-hardened varnish, they might possibly have survived, but unvarnished works would have been injured or destroyed. It is impossible to foresee what schemes a zealous servant may not carry into execution. Projecting ornaments on frames are always in danger from servants' dusters. I once possessed a plaster statuette, which was valuable because there were only three copies in existence, and every successive house-maid broke its arm off with a blow from the wooden stick which is inside a feather-brush. The arm was regularly glued on again for the next house-maid. The feather-brush looks a most innocent instrument, but the stick in it makes the house-maid formidable.
I once knew an old gentleman who possessed a picture of great value, the most important work of its master (one of the old masters) in existence. This picture was the pride and pleasure of his old age, and he could not help caressing it, as it were. From sheer love of it, he could not be satisfied with looking at it, but must needs touch it frequently also, and his way was to pass an oiled rag gently over its surface. I believe the oil he used was olive-oil (he was a Frenchman, and so there would always be olive-oil in the house for the salad), and as olive-oil never dries, or at least is the worst drier known, perhaps it did not accumulate on the picture, but the dust must have stuck to it, and made a fresh application necessary from time to time merely to clean off the old one. Olive-oil does not dry properly, but it becomes sticky after long exposure to the air, and nothing could be better calculated to catch and retain dust. The wisdom of our ancestors made them rejoice in coats of varnish applied thickly over dirty pictures, to lock up the dirt between the paint and the varnish, and so preserve it for the delight of posterity. Our ancestors liked dingy pictures, and the dirtier they were the better they seem to have liked them. The President of the Irish Academy, in a witty speech that I regret not to have kept, said that in Ireland at the present day the public taste required that a picture should be very black, and that it should not cost more than six pounds. Now, dirt is a great help to darkness of complexion, as we all know by the faces of dirty boys in the streets, and, if darkness were considered a merit in these boys, it would be a great mistake to wash them.
The question of picture-cleaning is one of the most complicated that can be. Suppose you leave a very dirty picture as it is, do you see, can you possibly see, what the artist painted? Assuredly not; and why should decent people tolerate dirty pictures when they will not tolerate a dirty table-cloth? The answer is that, if the picture could be cleaned as safely as the table-cloth it would be done without hesitation, but that cleaning may possibly remove light glazes and scumblings along with the varnish, and that if these glazes, the finishing work of the artist, are once removed, no human being on earth, except the artist who painted the picture, can replace them. But, by the time a picture urgently wants cleaning, the painter has generally been for many years in his grave. Therefore, in having a picture cleaned you are risking that which can not be replaced. All this has been said before, but the arguments for and against picture-cleaning have usually been presented in a controversial manner by strong partisans of one side or the other, and, as I am not at all a partisan in the matter, I may be able to state the case more fairly. The choice of evils is this: To escape from the certain evil of leaving a picture concealed by the dirt upon it, you expose it to the possible evil of removing the finishing glazes. Anybody who has painted a picture knows what a disaster that is. The degree of the disaster varies with different artists, according to the importance of the glazes in their system of work. To remove the glazes, even partially, from a Titian is to destroy the picture, because he glazed a great deal, and what we all know as the rich Titian color required that method for its production; but, when a painter has used a more direct method, painting the intended color at once, or nearly so, then the removal of a glaze does not destroy the character of the picture, though it may diminish its beauty and charm. To remove a glaze, in any case, is to put the picture back from a finished to an unfinished state; this is exactly what is done, and the degree of destruction is in inverse ratio to the degree of advancement attained in that unfinished state. But, if the picture is extremely dirty, then it is as if some other person had glazed unintelligently over the whole work, so that the original intentions of the artist are as much falsified in one direction by dirt as they are in another by taking the finish from his picture. The reasonable rule, then, would appear to be to clean pictures that really need it, but to avoid over cleaning with the most scrupulous care.
The removal of varnish is in some cases rendered absolutely necessary by a foolish practice that was occasionally resorted to by our fathers—the practice of tinting the varnish itself to give what they wrongly imagined to be tone. It was believed that anybody could varnish a picture; and, by one of those amazing delusions that take deep root in ignorant minds, it was thought that all the colors in a picture could be improved simultaneously by spreading one and the same transparent color over them.
The question whether it is right to paint upon pictures when repairing them may be better understood by considering one or two particular cases. I remember a house where the children were so much indulged that they were allowed to shoot with pop-guns and other engines at the family portraits, and they did this with such energy as actually to produce holes in the canvas—one large hole, for example, in the face of a lady who had been beautiful a hundred years ago. Now, if that picture came to you by inheritance in that state, the question about repainting would present itself to you in a practical form. You would have to determine whether the face was to remain in its damaged condition or to be repaired. To leave it damaged would be to destroy the effect of the picture on everybody's mind, because everybody would think of the hole, and how the accident happened, instead of thinking about the beauty or history of the lady or the merit of the painting. It seems, then, that it would be reasonable to have the picture repaired, and yet it is indisputable that to do this must be to introduce the work of another man. Everything, then, depends on the skill of the restorer. In such a case as that the restorer would begin by carefully laying together the jagged threads of the canvas, so that none should project, and he would probably put a backing to support them; then he would cover them with white-lead up to the level of the painted surface, and, when that was hard and dry, he would carefully color the white patch so as to replace what had been destroyed. Artists of considerable technical ability, but who have not the knack of producing salable pictures, sometimes attain such skill in the coloring of these patches that it becomes impossible to distinguish them after restoration, and the picture has all the appearance of an uninjured work. I remember some portraits from an old French château that were all dirt and holes; in fact, to call them dirty rags would scarcely have been an exaggeration, but the owner had a value for them, and wisely placed them in the hands of a very experienced painter. This artist knew a good cleaner, to whom he confided part of the work, and who began by cleaning the pictures carefully and putting them all on new canvases. In this state the new canvas showed through all the holes like the skin of a pauper through his shirt, and every one of these little islands of new canvas had to be colored up to the tint of the surrounding paint, or rather to be colored like the paint which had disappeared, the nature of it having to be guessed from what remained round about it. When there is no detail, as often happens in draperies and backgrounds, this is not extremely difficult, though it requires a well-trained eye to color; but when detail has to be invented exactly in the style of the picture, that is a different matter, which taxes the skill of the restorer to the utmost. However, there can be no question that when a picture is so injured as to present hiatuses, whether by holes in the canvas or by mere removal of the paint, it is an absolute necessity to have them filled as well as we can. Painting is not in the same position as literature in this respect. There are numerous unfinished lines in the "Æneid," and after the death of Virgil we are told that Augustus appointed a literary commission, empowered by him to remove those parts which were glaringly unfinished and defective (as Virgil himself had died before his own intended revisal of the poem); but we are also told that Augustus strictly forbade the revisers to add anything whatever of their own. We all feel that no hand but that of the author should add anything to a poem; we all prefer certain fragments of Coleridge and Shelley to any finishing that would involve additions by a reviser. In a minor degree we object to restoration in sculpture, though here we tolerate it to some extent. When a nose is broken from a bust, it is generally restored, and so is a finger on a hand; but prudent conservators of museums do not often attempt the restoration of an arm that has entirely disappeared. These distinctions, as well as our greater desire for the restoration of paintings, are all perfectly logical. A hiatus does not make a poem intolerable. The numerous small gaps in the "Æneid" have but a very slight effect in diminishing the reader's satisfaction, the reason being that they occur one at a time, and each little gap is forgotten in the interest of the next perfect opening of two pages; but in a picture all the gaps are seen at the same time, and distract our attention from the general beauty of the work. A Greek bust, however lovely, is a torment to us without its nose, and though the restored nose may not be so good as the lost original, it allows us to admire the beauties of the brow and chin in peace. If we shrink from the restoration of an arm, it is because we do not know enough about the arm that has been lost to replace it satisfactorily, but the lost arm is not spoiled; it is simply absent, and though there are loss and mutilation, there is not a hiatus like an empty space which is inclosed within the four sides of a picture. The only exceptions to the necessity for restoration in damaged pictures are those cases in which a fragment of ancient painting is preserved less as a work of art than as an object of antiquarian interest. Then, of course, however mutilated, it must remain in its mutilated condition like all those things which are valuable as materials for antiquarian studies.
Vermin have to be guarded against carefully in the preservation of works of art. Drawings and engravings are generally protected either by portfolios or by glass, which prevent the droppings of flies from spotting them; but I have seen prints spoiled in this way by being carelessly left upon a table for a very short time, when the flies took their opportunity and left their black dots. Their excrement is soluble in water, and can be removed easily from any hard substance while it is fresh, though it hardens and becomes less soluble afterward; but on an engraving it is disastrous, as it sinks into the paper like a stain. It therefore becomes a necessary precaution, especially in summer, to cover a print that is left on a table, or, better still, never to leave prints on tables at all.
The worms that bore into wood are dangerous only to pictures on panels, and, as very few pictures are painted upon wood in these days, this enemy is not so much to be feared. When he attacks an old panel his holes may be stopped with a little marine glue, applied hot; but it is curious how often worms will attack a thin piece of wood without penetrating to the other side. In two specimens before me, small panels three eighths of an inch thick, and about four inches by five, I find that in one case the worms have made twenty-two holes, not one of which has got through to the other side: and in the other case there are twenty-five holes, of which only seven have as yet penetrated.
The only way to keep prints and drawings from the attacks of rats and mice is to have them always in closed cases if they are not framed, and, if the cases are of wood, it is a good precaution to have them covered with thin sheet-iron behind and beneath, while the front panels may be glazed. Tin boxes are a perfect protection against rodents, and so, of course, is glass. Common portfolios are a poor protection, as a rat willingly attacks them, and soon eats his way through to the prints; in fact, common portfolios are in all ways unsafe, being of use only to keep order. The danger from rats and mice is always present, for even in places where they are unknown they may at any time suddenly make their appearance. A rat may find his way into your best protected room. I remember one summer's day—in broad daylight, too—seeing a large rat quietly descending into my study by means of a window-curtain, the window having been left open. He had walked along a little stone ledge that the architect had carried round the house as an ornament, which is a great convenience to rats. When a house is perfectly quiet at night a rat will wander about in the coolest manner, and enter by any door that happens to be left ajar. In this way a fine black rat once got into my study and remained there for several days. I heard him distinctly behind certain heavy pieces of furniture, but could not get at him. He did a great deal of damage, though happily not to anything of much value, and he ended his career in a trap. Had I been away from home, the devastation caused by that one animal might have been serious. But his visit taught me a lesson, as he especially attacked portfolios, while the shallow tin boxes on shelves which I have adopted of late years entirely escaped his attentions. It is astonishing by what a narrow orifice a mouse will find her way into any place that she desires to visit. Drawers are sometimes so constructed that, although they fit well in front (for the sake of appearances), they are loose in the chest behind, and the consequence is that, if a mouse can get into the chest anywhere, she has all the drawers at her disposal. The first use she will make of any precious papers will probably be to tear them into little pieces and establish a comfortable nest in a corner.
In my article on "The Poor Collector" I touched briefly upon the question of frames. We have already noticed the curious fact that people who are strict about cleanliness in common household matters will tolerate dirty pictures. Very dirty frames are also tolerated in some public and private collections; in fact, I have seen collections where the notion that frames and pictures would be the better for being clean does not appear to have dawned upon the owner's mind. Surely, however, it is with these things as with all other things, cleanliness is pleasing in itself and an addition to the charm of beauty. One likes to see a pretty child with a clean face and an unspotted frock, though it might still be recognized as a pretty child if it lived in filth and squalor. In the case of pictures and their belongings, dirt is especially incongruous, because there can not be any poverty to excuse it. Pictures and their frames are superfluities in any case, and why tolerate a dirty superfluity?
A word, in conclusion, may be said about the art of exhibiting things to advantage in private rooms. It is astonishing how few people understand the simple principle that some works of art may be injurious to others when shown by the side of them. For example, engravings are always killed by paintings, and the white margins of engravings diminish the luminous quality of paintings; yet there are people who hang paintings and engravings in the same room. Again, there are others who would not do that, but who will hang paintings together of which the style and sentiment are so absolutely incongruous that they can not avoid conflict, and require entirely different moods of mind for the right appreciation of them. Suppose you have a gravely furnished room, a library, and one or two portraits in it of thoughtful and serious men painted soberly and in quiet color, would it not evidently be a great mistake to admit into that room any picture whatever that should disturb the pensive of the place? Fancy the effect if you admitted a gaudy modern portrait of an overdressed lady with a smirk upon her face as she sat happy in her glare and glitter of millinery and trinkets! There ought to be in every room a certain prevailing note or mood of the human mind whatever it may be, and everything should be kept subordinate to that one dominant idea, with sufficient variety to avoid dullness, but without transgression of the limits prescribed by the idea. In a word, let us have ideal unity; let us avoid the incongruous. A room may contain different works of art, but, in a comprehensive sense, it is a work of art in itself, and the first necessity for every work of art is unity. If it is decided that the note of the room is to be cheerfulness, it is easy to keep faithful to that. Light in itself is an element of cheerfulness, so the wall-paper will be light. Water-colors are more cheerful than oil-paintings, because water-color painting is apparently slighter and more rapid; it conveys better the idea of felicitous dexterity. Watercolors, too, may have margins, and the white of the margins gives much light and gayety to a room. The frames must be gilded, because nothing is so cheerful as gilding; but they must not be heavy, because massiveness is oppressive to the imagination. The pictures themselves should be generally light, and the coloring as bright and gay as it can be without crudity. In such a room we do not want melancholy landscapes or solemn-looking personages, but we want blue skies and sunshine, merrily rippling waters, human life in youth or healthy maturity, happy in activity and love, not burdened with care and sorrow—all in that sweet dream-land of the poetic imagination—
The opposite mood of thoughtful gravity is not by any means inferior as a motive, and it is more in consonance with the habitual feelings of mature age. The greatest of all artists have worked in the serious sense, and our noblest pictures, like our sweetest songs, "are those that tell of saddest thought," or, if not quite of the saddest, still of that quietly grave, reflective thought which is "far from all resort of mirth." Few paintings of the human face have such a permanent hold upon the memory, or are so often looked at, or for so many minutes at once, as that picture by Francia in the Louvre which is simply called the "Portrait of a Gentleman." Nobody knows anything whatever about the original, but the "gentleman" is so sad and thoughtful that we dream with him, and see the world through his melancholy eyes. In minor degrees many paintings have this kind of attraction; it is to be found in landscape as well as in portrait and history, and, if a few thoughtful works are brought together in the same room, without being neutralized by anything discordant in furniture and decoration, their effect upon the mind may be both durable and profound.—Longmarts Magazine.
- So far as I know. My experience of mildew has been chiefly with prints and the sails of boats, which require almost as much care as prints, and in these cases mildew has always required damp as a condition of its existence.
- "Longman's Magazine," September, 1885.
- Canvases are exposed to injuries of this nature in exhibitions chiefly, from the corners of other pictures that may be carelessly placed against them, before or after the exhibition. In private houses this danger is scarcely to be dreaded, but it is well to bear in mind that all people except painters believe that it does no harm to a canvas to lean it against the corner of a chair, a table, a box, or anything that may present itself conveniently.
- Field says that olive-oil is reported to have been used for painting in Italy in place of the desiccative oils, but he thinks it likely that it was only employed as a diluent. No painter in our climate would think of using olive-oil in any way whatever.
- When this is done the old canvases are entirely destroyed by friction without injuring the paint, which is then fixed on the new canvas. A painting is removed from a wooden panel by first planing the wood till it is very thin, after which what remains of the wood is destroyed entirely by the use of sand-paper and scrapers.
- The one reason for dirty frames is the partial burnishing of the gilding. Oil-gilding can not be burnished; water-gilding, which takes burnish, can not be washed with water, and nothing but water will clean a fly-spotted, dirty frame effectually. Consequently a frame that has burnish upon it can only be dusted, and when it becomes really dirty it must be sent to the gilder; but, as regilding is expensive, it is postponed as long as possible—sometimes for a lifetime, and even for more than one generation. With oil-gilding only and one thin coat of varnish over the gilding (the varnish is nearly imperceptible if properly applied), a frame may be washed from time to time. This has been said already in the paper on "The Poor Collector," but is repeated here in a note for readers who have not that paper to refer to.