Brilliance emerges during restoring of 200-year-old painting of Pilgrims’ landing – The brownish dirt underfoot was once actually white snow. And the seemingly threatening gray skies were light blue and filled with sea gulls.

The restoration of Henry Sargent’s “Landing of the Pilgrims” has only just begun, but David Olin and his crew of conservators are already revealing fine details in Pilgrim Hall’s historical landscape painting.

Removed from its nearly two-century perch in the museum’s main exhibit hall, the oil canvas is stretched before a cradle of scaffolding, where Olin and company are painstakingly applying a mix of aqueous solutions and solvents to clean away decades of dirt and grime. The work will continue through June, but already some unexpected highlights have emerged.

A preliminary cleaning of Myles Standish’s leg armor, for instance, has revealed rivets that hold the metal flaps together.

“I can’t believe the sky,” Pilgrim Hall Executive Director Patrick Browne said of the painting Thursday. “It’s going to be a totally different painting. Instead of being the dark, brooding thing it appeared on the wall, it’s going to be brilliant.”

A state grant enabled Pilgrim Hall to restore the painting and its massive gilded frame.

The museum relocated exhibits to accommodate the work so visitors can witness the restoration. People who cannot make it to Plymouth can watch via a live online feed.

The work started last weekend with the painting’s removal from the museum’s eastern wall. It has hung in the hall since the museum opened in 1823 and was taken down only once, and briefly, in the 1870s.

Museum members were curious to see if there was anything on the wall beneath the painting, but it was bare when Olin and his crew removed it over the weekend.

While he had always planned to line the back with canvas to stabilize the painting, he feared the museum might have added an asphalt-based backing, which was just becoming popular when the painting was off the wall in the 1870s.

The lack of any such tar-based lining allows Olin and his crew to work on the painting from both sides.

In areas where Sargent’s paint is badly cracked, the conservators have infused the canvas from the back, stabilizing it so that cracked paint will have a foundation to adhere to when it is cleaned and returns to its original state.

The painting will travel to Virginia at some point this month, but it will return in early May for two months of onsite work. Visitors can watch from the side of the main exhibit hall.

Story and photo by Rich Harbert

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