George restores the linen canvas of panel backings of old and not so old “masters” and corrects peeling and cracking paint. Upstairs, under a great studio window, whose light-diffusion is assisted by soot from the railway tracks across the way, Fred works at an easel cleaning the surfaces, retouching damaged areas and revarnishing pictures from museums, art dealers and such Boston clans as the Lowells, Cabots, and Agassizes.
“The only reason we have a Reubens, a Raphael or a Rembrandt today,” said 59-year-old George, “is because some craftsman took care of it. These great pictures had to be relined and rebacked many times.”
As he spoke he released one of the large air presses and a 1500-pound counterweight silently lifted the lid into the air. He gently removed a portrait of an American woman of 1834 painted in rich color by Rembrandt Peale. The painting had been under something like six pounds pressure per square inch (the press is capable of 10) and carefully controlled heat, so that cracking and curling paint was pressed firmly and blued or waxed to a new and less destructible backing.
The presses are lined with rubber air-filled mats so that the impasto, or raised relief of the paint is not damaged. That impasto is often one of the trademarks of a painter.
Oliver’s father and grandfather worked first in Europe where the humidity was more constant than in America and had to work out a new system here. He explained how in the “olden days” the restorer would stretch an old canvas and work a paste and glue composition underneath the cracking paint, then press the pictures dry with heavy hot irons. This destroys some of the “life” of a painting.
“The one thing we don’t do is repaint a picture,” he emphasized, referring to his uncle’s part of the partnership. “If you go to the museum to study a Reynolds, you don’t want to see Oliver Brothers painted all over it!”
Some old paintings come into the studio blotched with “retouchings” which shows that an earlier restorer was not able to mix his paint so thy would age at the same rate as the original and at the same time look “right.”
Each painting that comes to the Olivers for repair—and some have been torn so that you literally could stick your head through them—presents its own problem and requires its own solution. Their commissions, incidentally, have never been solicited by them. “It’s as important what we don’t do to a picture as what we do,” said George. “It’ll only take 10 minutes to ruin a picture—no, less!
“We try to think of everything to save a painting.” He pointed to the presses, which are heated no more than 150 degrees, because anything hotter can change the color of the paint. “It has a thermostat which turns off automatically if I should drop dead.”
In a number of cases the Olivers have taken repainting off an older picture and found the original underneath. In doing the portrait of Governor Richard Walker of Pennsylvania, they found that he had been first painted in clothes and buttons of different style and color.
“A fellow came in here some time back with a small picture which he had bought for $25.” Mr. Oliver told the story with relish. “It was a mess, but when we got the top off, a small butterfly showed up in the corner of the canvas!
The butterfly is the famous signature of the painter Whistler. The little painting proved to be a real Whistler, and the man found that he could sell it for $1800.
The Olivers are refreshingly humble before fine art. Their shop is organized around respect for the treasures of the past and for the employment of posterity.
“After all,” said George, “the museums are interested in how their pictures are going to look not tomorrow, not in 10 years, but in 1000 years from now!”
*Sunday Post Staff photos by James C. Ward