Article by William Oppenhimer
Scott Nolley, an objects and painting conservator for Colonial Williamsburg, spent 18 months on conservation of the paintings included in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center’s exhibition, The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks. Nolley, who learned his painstaking craft through an undergraduate program in conservation at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and the graduate program at Buffalo State College in Cooperstown, N.Y., said he discovers a painter’s techniques by studying the individual brushstrokes and the layering and composition involved in each work. In the paintings by Edward Hicks, Nolley said he could see that Hicks put a finished sky in first, then a layer of trees — techniques Hicks learned from his trade as a sign painter.
“This is a great job,” Nolley said, “because I get to have an intimacy with the artwork. I have the luxury of spending time with the painting. The paintings speak to you; they give themselves to you over time.”
The conservator told of going to visit one of the prospective lenders to the exhibition, to determine whether the condition of the painting would make it feasible for it to travel. “I’m a direct descendent of Edward Hicks,” the woman said proudly, taking off her glasses. Nolley said he was startled to see the same facial features as in the portrait of Edward Hicks in the exhibition. This lender wishes to remain nameless, because, as Nolley said, “When you have a painting valued at five million dollars, you want to keep a low profile.”
The painting had a slight tear but was in excellent condition overall, Nolley said, because it had never been cleaned or restored. Many of the paintings loaned to the exhibition suffered from over-restoration, according to Nolley. “I was able to get a lot of information from this painting that had been lost by over-cleaning in the others,” Nolley said, “and I have a file on this painting that is three inches thick.”
Nolley said Colonial Williamsburg museums have the most modern equipment, including an x-ray machine that can penetrate stone and heavy metal, far exceeding the power of x-ray equipment in a doctor’s office. When asked whether he had ever taken a painting to a hospital radiology department, he said, “Nothing thrills hospital personnel more than for us to show up with an art object.”
When questioned about the evident lack of signatures on the paintings of Edward Hicks, something the curators at the Folk Art Center have in the past adamantly said was necessary for positive identification, Nolley said two of the early Peaceable Kingdoms were signed on the front, but many were inscribed on the reverse from Hicks to a particular friend or family member. “We call that an inscription rather than a signature,” Nolley said. “It’s done with the same block letters that he used on his border paintings.”
“The Quakers considered it too worldly to sign your work,” Nolley said, “a sinful source of pride.”
WILLIAM OPPENHIMER is a retired obstetrician/gynecologist and a member of the FASA Board of Directors.
As seen in the Folk Art Messenger: