Home is the sailor, home from the sea … and the poet returned to the gallery.
In the summer of 1997, I was invited by Norman and Judith Topper to visit their home at Fearrington Village. Originally from New York, the Toppers had embraced the Triangle and especially the Museum. Both were dedicated, enthusiastic docents at the NCMA. They invited me over that August morning to talk about their art collection and specifically if there was anything of interest to the Museum.
Their collection was modest, mostly European and Japanese prints and Chinese export porcelain. While not for us, they would be welcome in the collections of several local museums, and I gave the Toppers names and phone numbers of the curators. However, there was one item that I very much coveted. Leaning on a shelf was a bronze portrait medallion of the Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson by the American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. That was a keeper! The Toppers happily offered to leave the portrait to the Museum in their wills. The next day Norman called to say that he and Judith had changed their minds: they wanted to donate the portrait right away. In such moments curators are allowed to be giddy.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907) is arguably the finest American sculptor of the 19th century, famed for his heroic monuments to Civil War heroes. His most celebrated works are the gilded equestrian statue of General Sherman at the bottom of New York’s Central Park and the incomparable memorial to Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the heroic African American soldiers of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry on Boston Common. Saint-Gaudens was also the unsurpassed master of the demanding art of relief portraiture. Working within a shallow plane, he managed to convey an illusion of space and a complexity of design as well as a vivid and personable likeness. The Stevenson portrait is regarded as one of the sculptor’s great triumphs.
Saint-Gaudens requested and received permission to create the portrait during Stevenson’s visit to the United States in 1887. As the artist recalled in his autobiography:
I began the medallion at [Stevenson’s] rooms in the Hotel Albert … not far from where I lived on Washington Place. All I had time to do from him then was the head, which I modeled in five sittings of two or three hours each. These were given me in the morning, while he, as was his custom, lay in bed propped up with pillows, and either read or was read to by Mrs. Stevenson.
The artist modeled the poet’s thin, elegant hands several months later. In the finished relief, he filled the background with Stevenson’s verse.
The Stevenson portrait achieved immediate and enduring success, and the sculptor had editions cast in several sizes.
The portrait arrived from the Toppers without a frame. We looked at examples of frame designs favored by the sculptor and initially tried a hexagonal design in dark walnut. That proved unsatisfactory. This past year Chief Conservator Bill Brown and I revisited the frame problem. This time we were inspired by an arts and crafts design frequently used by Saint-Gaudens for other casts of the Stevenson portrait. Instead of a dark wood molding, this design featured splined oak boards, decorated only by a carved bead border circling the inset relief and by three carved rosettes at the bottom, echoing motifs in the relief. We brought in local furniture craftsman Evan Lightner, who had earlier fabricated the imposing architectural surround for our mural study by John Singer Sargent. We showed Evan photographs of our chosen design. He then researched frame making of the period and came back to us with drawings. He also proposed using a tricky 19th-century technique to impart a rich golden tone to the wood by fuming the boards with ammonia—a process that required trial and error. Though lengthy, Evan’s description of the frame-making process makes interesting reading:
Once the design was agreed upon, I sourced lumber in the dimensions necessary to fulfill the specs of the frame—plus another plank for backup. As with most American arts and crafts furniture from that period, quartersawn white oak was utilized for its stability and uniform grain. Initial milling of my planks yielded grain directions and cosmetic characteristics. I selected the lengths with the straightest grain and lack of inclusions for the frame body. These were cut from the plank, remilled, surface scraped, and left to acclimate.
At the Museum a template of the bronze medallion was traced, noting its attachment points, depth, and deviations. Back at the shop, the frame sides were planed to thickness, ripped to width, and cut to length. These lengths were then mitered at 45 degrees. I then used the template to rout into the frame the exact ever-so-slightly oblong shape of the artwork.
At this point I temporarily assembled the frame. With a razor tool, I then scribed the two lines around the inside perimeter that would comprise the channel for the carved pea molding. Taking the frame apart into its four sections allowed me to carve the double row of inset 1/8-inch peas into the channel as well as the rosettes at the frame bottom. When completed, I glued the four corners of the frame together. A segmented ledge was installed in the frame interior to enable attachment of the relief.
Several rounds of finish sanding prepared the frame for coloring and sealing. I constructed a plastic tent to envelop the frame, leaving about 3 inches of airspace around it. Before sealing the tent, I poured one cup of 28% aqueous ammonia into a pie dish located in the center of the frame. After two hours of exposure to the ammonia fumes, the frame had darkened substantially. Following a light surface sanding, I applied three coats of a polymerized linseed oil based on a 19th-century coachmakers recipe. Once cured, a coat of paste wax was applied and buffed to a satin sheen.
In the meantime Bill Brown had cleaned the surface of the portrait relief and applied a thin protective wax to the surface. The original patination of the bronze had likely suffered over the years from overpolishing—think a polished doorknob. Bill used a colored French wax, Pâte Dugay, to impart a slightly darker overall tone and to highlight the subtle textural differences hidden within the shallow picture plane. When the frame arrived, Bill carefully set the relief into the recess, attaching it with bronze screws. The result is an elegant presentation: a frame that does not call attention to itself but only enhances the quiet beauty of the portrait.
The framed portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson was reinstalled to the American Galleries on January 28, paired with Thomas Eakins’s portrait of Dr. Albert Getchell.
John W. Coffey