When you walk into the galleries of the Gibbes, you expect exquisite works of art beautifully framed, lit, installed, and interpreted for your visual and intellectual pleasure. And while this experience is what draws most people to the museum, sometimes the story of how these works arrived to the gallery walls is equally compelling. Such is the case with Alice Ravenel Huger Smith’s series of thirty watercolor paintings known as the Rice Plantation Series, currently on view at the museum.
Ever since Smith donated the Rice Plantation Series to the Gibbes in 1937, the watercolors have been among the most popular works owned by the museum. Unfortunately, the delicate works on paper were slowly deteriorating. The culprit: acidic boards mounted to the back of each painting. The acid was capable of discoloring the works and depositing brown spots known as foxing; and with many of the watercolors, the damage was well under way. Fortunately for the Gibbes, donors Ralph Blakely and the late Wilmer Welsh recognized the need to intervene, reverse the damage, and prevent future damage through professional conservation of Smith’s entire series of watercolors. To accomplish this, they established the Welsh-Blakely Fund, a substantial financial commitment that funded the five-year conservation project.
To complete the project, the Gibbes turned to the Straus Center for Conservation at the Harvard University Art Museums. The paintings were shipped to Boston in groups of five, with each painting requiring several weeks for treatment. Led by the late Craigen Bowen, the Straus Center’s talented team of conservators developed a treatment plan specifically for this group of paintings and undertook the highly technical task of removing the acidic mounting boards. Once the majority of the board was removed, conservators used an ethanol solution and various tools, including spatulas, bookbinders’ knives, scalpels, and tweezers, to remove extraneous paper backing and adhesive materials. Once all traces of the backing were removed, the reverse of each painting was cleaned with warm water. Following cleaning, each painting was housed in a humidity chamber to relax the paper fibers, and then sandwiched between blotters and secured with weights for one to three weeks to eliminate any buckling of the paper. The results are truly remarkable. Each painting returned to the Gibbes in pristine condition with more vibrant colors—Alice Smith herself surely would be thrilled with the results.
Completing the conservation of all thirty paintings was a monumental task of which the museum is very proud. Not only was damage reversed, the paintings were stabilized to prevent future deterioration. Such preventative conservation measures are key in the museum’s commitment to preserving the artistic heritage of the South. The current installation on the first floor of the museum is a rare opportunity to view the series as a whole and a great tribute to the many individuals who made this project happen.
—Pam Wall, Curator of Exhibitions, Gibbes Museum of Art