Clemson, Historic Charleston Foundation partner to conserve Aiken-Rhett painting
NORTH CHARLESTON — The conservation of the portrait of Harriet Lowndes Aiken, about 9 feet tall by 5 feet wide, takes gentle hands and plenty of patience. In the modern era, it also benefits from technology.
Beginning this week, researchers at the Clemson University Restoration Institute’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center will use the lab’s state-of-the-art, 3-D scanning and digital X-ray equipment to examine the painting.
Their findings will aid conservators hired by the Historic Charleston Foundation as they restore George Whiting Flagg’s portrait of the once-First Lady of South Carolina to its former glory.
Years of display and storage in non-climate-controlled environments have taken a toll on the portrait’s appearance. What lies beneath the dirt and grime could hold the keys to successfully turning back the clock — and that’s where Clemson comes in.
Clemson scientist Benjamin Rennison will use the lab’s sophisticated 3-D scanner to plot a digital image of the painting’s surface. Over time, cracks have developed on the canvas, possibly caused by the rolling of the canvas for safekeeping during the Civil War years.
Rennison will use the scanner to see how the painting’s integrity has changed. Cracking causes the painting’s surface to lose its “flatness,” meaning it creates tiny peaks and troughs on the canvas — a deformation of the canvas called “cupping.”
The scanner will map these changes, allowing Rennison and the conservators to analyze how the surface of the painting has broken down.
“Oil paintings dry, and the paint cracks,” Rennison said. “The surface starts off flat, but the paint bends and becomes ‘less flat’ over time.”
Rennison will use film studio-grade lighting supplied by technicians and Trident Technical College. This will allow him to control any overhead lighting and eliminate ambient lighting while the painting is in the lab under scan. The scanner follows a zig-zag path down the painting.
“We’ll get an even effect, so we’ll be able to see what the painting would look like if it was outside in ambient lighting,” Rennison said. “We’re trying to give it as realistic a hue as possible.”
In addition to aiding the conservators, Rennison will use his findings to write an academic paper on color control and the use of studio lighting in painting conservation. The paper will focus on advanced lighting techniques and best practices for 3-D scanning in color, and in this case, for an important piece of Charleston’s heritage.
Clemson researchers also will digitally X-ray the portrait.
Assistant conservator Chris Watters and senior conservator Paul Mardikian will examine what lies beneath the painting’s surface. The X-rays will show how the artist prepared the painting, if he painted over any areas, or decided to make changes to the portrait.
The X-ray will help conservators understand the surface they’re working on by showing what is below the surface, how the paint layers exist and where they are located. Such information will help guide the conservationists’ strategy, alerting them to possible problem areas, Watters said.
Aiken-Rhett descendant Harold J. Bowen Jr., the great, great, great grandson of Gov. William and Harriet Aiken, has funded the analysis and conservation of the portrait.
The project team also includes Clemson University researchers Paul Mardikian and Michael Scafuri, Historic Charleston Foundation curator Brandy Culp and frame conservator Nancy Newton and fine arts conservator Catherine Rogers.
Culp said the Foundation’s mission is to preserve and protect Charleston’s rich historical, architectural and material culture, and conservation is an important step in preserving our cultural resources.
“By researching, documenting, and analyzing objects, we learn more about Charleston’s history,” she said. “In addition to being an important Aiken-Rhett family heirloom, the portrait of Harriet Lowndes Aiken is of great historical significance.”
When conservation is complete, which is expected to take about three months, the painting will be returned to its original 19th century location — the Aiken-Rhett house art gallery, the only climate-controlled room within the house.
The Harriet Aiken Lowndes portrait
The portrait of Harriet Aiken Lowndes was painted by American artist George Whiting Flagg (1816-1897). Although Connecticut-born, Flagg had family ties to the Lowcountry. He was the nephew and understudy of famed artist, Washington Allston (1779-1843). By the time he painted this grand, full-length portrait of Gov. Aiken's wife Harriet, who was well-traveled and fluent in several languages, Flagg had established himself in Charleston as an accomplished and well-known artist. Thought to have been executed in 1857 after their return from an extended Grand Tour, the painting shows that both the sitter and artist may have been familiar with the portraits of famed European artist Francis Xavier Winterhalter (1805-1873).
Clemson University Restoration Institute Warren Lasch Conservation Center
The Warren Lasch Conservation Center at the Clemson University Restoration Institute in North Charleston, SC, combines interdisciplinary faculty and staff with corporate partners to drive economic growth in materials conservation. The institute's 27-acre campus at the former Charleston Navy base also houses the world's largest wind turbine drivetrain testing facility, which is providing the foundation for a wind energy industry cluster in South Carolina.
Historic Charleston Foundation
Established in 1947, Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF) is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve and protect the historical, architectural and material culture that make up Charleston’s rich and irreplaceable heritage. Preservation, coupled with education and outreach, is at the heart of the HCF mission. This mission is supported through the generosity of preservation-minded donors, the Annual Spring Festival of Houses and Gardens, the Charleston International Antiques Show, a licensed products program, and retail shops. In addition, HCF fulfills its educational mission through the interpretation of its collections and two museum sites: the Nathaniel Russell House, c. 1808, and the Aiken-Rhett House, c. 1820.