Dr. Hill and students

Guerry’s Portrait of Carlisle Returns Home

June 27, 2002

SPARTANBURG, SC—Albert Capers Guerry’s portrait of Wofford College’s third president, James H. Carlisle, has returned to campus after a yearlong restoration at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

The 10-foot-tall, 7-foot-wide painting is back in its rightful place on the wall of Leonard Auditorium in historic Main Building with portraits of other Wofford presidents.

More than 230 hours were devoted to the restoration of the portrait by Guerry, a 19th century itinerant artist born in South Carolina and famous for his paintings of John C. Calhoun that hang at Wofford and in the South Carolina Statehouse. His paintings of William McKinley and Grover Cleveland are part of the White House collection.

Called “the most distinguished South Carolinian of his day” and “Wofford’s spiritual endowment,” Carlisle is credited with leading the college’s revival after the Civil War and Reconstruction. He was president from 1875 through 1901.

The restoration of his portrait was challenging because of various disturbances the painting endured through the years. In 1971, the portrait was exposed to a fire, which contributed to some of the cracking, cleavage and flaking in the ground and paint layers of the canvas. Also adding to the difficulty was the fact that Guerry used uncommonly thin canvas, possibly because of the cost, and used his paints sparingly, which made texture restoration very difficult.

Although the painting was restored after the fire, a considerable amount of soot still remained. Perry Hurt and a team of conservators at the North Carolina Museum of Art removed as much of the soot as possible. The top layer of varnish had yellowed and decayed over the years, and this too was removed. The team also removed part of an underlying layer of older varnish, specifically in the area of the sky, where it was most distracting because of its contrasting discoloration. They removed flaking paint, and any remaining varnish was cleaned. Planar distortions in the canvas support and paint layers were removed as much as possible.

After this was done, the conservators removed the canvas stretcher. Then, they cleaned the back of the canvas, removing wax adhesive, dust and grime. Tears and holes in the canvas were repaired using a Japanese tissue. They lined the original support with a secondary support layer of linen fabric.

During the process, an effect called a pentimento was discovered. Guerry originally had intended to make the Main Building towers smaller, then changed his mind and painted over the originals. However, certain paints, especially if applied thinly, become transparent with age. The particular paint Guerry applied faded in that region of the picture and now shows his original, smaller towers next to the larger ones, so that four separate towers appear in the painting. The faculty in charge of the restoration project decided to have the conservators leave the pentimento in place to show as much history of the painting as possible.

The final cost of the restoration cost $11,600, with $10,000 being provided by a donor.

This article was written by Nathaniel Coburn, Wofford College class of 2006.