Edward Hicks – Penn’s Treaty – c. 1840-50

Historic Information

According to the State Museum of Pennsylvania: “Edward Hicks, a Bucks County Quaker, made a living painting signs and coaches. A split within the Quaker faith inspired him to paint several scenes based on the Biblical passage, ‘the lion shall lay down with the lamb.’ He soon added an image of Native Americans meeting with William Penn in the background. Both his religious heritage and local history likely influenced Hicks to paint the image of Penn’s Treaty.”

Emergency conservation was performed on this painting following water damage from a roof leak in the Fine Arts Storage facility of the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, PA.

Artifact's Condition Prior to Treatment

The painting was executed in oil paints with a white preparatory ground layer on a plain weave canvas, with a water soluble ground layer. The painting had normal age crackle throughout the composition and both a wide set and a fine intricate set of traction crackle in the tree canopy. There were two distinct varnish coatings on the painting. The uppermost was a fairly thick and discolored natural resin varnish applied as a brush coat during a previous 20th century restoration. The second lower layer includes remnants of discolored varnish and dirt that remained in the interstices of the paint after cleaning attempts were made during the previous restoration. The painting had a layer of fine soot/dirt on its surface, as well as small isolated areas of black fly excrement etched into or sitting on top of the paint layers. Remnants of the painting’s original tacking edges were still present on all four sides. The painting had been wax infused and lined onto a fiberglass cloth, which was likely done at the same time the painting was cleaned. The wax resin mixture was very brittle and the lining canvas was delaminating from the original support. Early such wax resin mixtures from this period frequently contained beeswax, paraffin and caranuba waxes, which have been found to lack stability. The painting was stretched on a very narrow pine stretcher, with mortise and tenon butt joinery and was designed for four very narrow stretcher keys, one in each corner going in the vertical direction. Several of the keys were missing. The stretcher was inadequate for the painting in its current condition. The painting was not signed or dated, but there was a white paper label on the reverse of the stretcher identifying the artist and work.

Although previously wet from the roof leak, the painting was almost completely dry when received for emergency treatment at our facility. Vertical drip lines could easily be seen on the painting’s surface and several isolated areas had severe cupping of paint and ground layers as a result of the water damage. The varnish coating applied during previous restoration had partially dissolved from contact with concrete and other building or roofing substances contained within the water when it dripped across the painting’s front and back surfaces. The layer of surface dirt and soot also ran as a result of the water damage. Water exposure caused the substrate to shrink, leaving not enough room for the paint to set back down flat. The wax resin coating has also blanched where water ran over it on the back and the tacks along the bottom had rusted.

The painting’s frame appears to be original and was most likely created by the artist. Thin mahogany veneers were applied to the top of a pine frame with butt-ended mortise and tenon joinery. The sides of the pine frame were painted a dark red/brown and not covered with veneer. The outermost corners were nicked, abraded, and somewhat splintered. In each corner of the frame was a mahogany block, which extended inward with the veneer to create a rabbet. A 4-ply piece of acid-free matboard had been partially glued to the reverse side of the veneer to better support the framed painting.  The mahogany veneers were cut from the crotch of a tree, presenting very nice patterns, but unfortunately they had cracked along curved tree growth lines and were not strong enough to adequately support the painting. Five fairly large sections on the inner edge of the veneer had been previously replaced and several more areas were glue repaired. The staining/toning of these areas did not match the original color and finish of the mahogany. As a result of water damage to the frame, one area of previous repair was coming apart along the top inner edge and other sections are cockled (curving/bowing). The shellac finish on the frame’s front surface had blanched as a result of the water damage. The finished veneer surface needed to be thinned, reformed, or recreated. The frame had the painted name of the subject – “Penn’s Treaty” – prominently displayed on the front surface of the lower frame member. This yellow inscription appeared to be early, if not original. The frame had its original brass circular hanging hardware affixed to the top center of the frame.

Treatment of the Artifact

The painting was carefully unframed and air was blown slowly across the surface and underside of the painting to both accelerate and control the evaporation of any remaining water from the structure of the painting. Careful surface cleaning of the painting was performed using a dilute detergent solution followed by a solvent rinse. The tented paint was determined to be stable enough to allow cleaning to proceed prior to consolidating raised areas. The painting was removed from its stretcher and the bent remaining tacking edges were relaxed back into plane with the surface of the painting using s silicon-coated Mylar interleaf with a heated tacking iron. The lined painting was placed face-up on the vacuum hot table on top of a sheet of silicon-coated Mylar. The table was heated to 180°F to liquefy the old wax consolidative adhesive in the painting and allow for he old canvas to be slid from underneath the painting. The tenting paint was not affected and canvas in tented areas was still in a shrunken condition.

Temporary strip linings of linen canvas were attached with thermoplastic ethyl vinyl acetate adhesive to the back side of the existing tacking edges, which was chosen because of its strength and ease of reversibility with solvents. The strip-lined painting was temporarily stretched onto a custom-built working stretcher. Large wooden keys were tapped in from the outside, rather than the inside as with a normal stretcher. This type of rigid stretcher allowed for complete visual and literal access to the entire painting on both the front and the reverse. To locally consolidate tented areas of paint, wax resin adhesive was applied to the back affected areas and heat was applied from a tacking iron directly to the reverse of the canvas where the paint was cupped. When the wax resin had softened or melted, pressure was applied with a finger on the reverse side of the canvas with support from a finger of the other hand on the front, a technique known as the “burnt finger method.” This allowed for safe stretching of the canvas up into the area of tented paint from the back as the wax resin cooled and congealed. By pressing the two fingers together from either side, the paint was be carefully reattached to the canvas. The painting was then removed from the working stretcher and the strip linings were removed with heat from the tacking iron.

A melted mixture of poly-terpene resin and micro-crystalline wax was evenly brush applied to the reverse of the original canvas. The painting was then placed face-up on the vacuum hot table with a sheet of Mylar below it and a sheet of Dartex on top. While heating the painting to 180°F, a slight vacuum was activated to allow the painting to be gently relaxed back into plane. The painting was placed face down on top of three sheets of Kraft paper and a layer of Dartex, covered with an additional layer of Dartex, heated to 180°F and placed under vacuum again. This second infusion allowed the paint layer to completely return to its original c. 1840-50 appearance without damaging any original impasto. The addition of the new wax resin material corrected the original wax mixture’s tendency to delaminate with age. A piece of Belgian linen infused with wax resin was attached to the back of the Hicks painting using thermoplastic adhesive using the same vacuum table process. The lined painting was allowed to cool while under slight vacuum before being re-stretched onto its original stretcher. Four of the eight original stretcher keys, while incredibly thin and fragile, were able to be used and were incorporated back into the stretcher; four other keys were not used. With an adequately taut surface, the painting was now structurally stable. Excess wax resin was removed from the painting’s surface with organic solvents. As a secondary result of the lining process, an old wax fill on the neck of the Indian Chief that did not match the original paint color was softened and removed. The older discolored varnish coatings on the painting were not affected by this process and remain intact at the request of our client. An isolated layer of conservation-grade varnish coating was applied to the painting and losses on the painting were filled with gesso and locally sealed with Acryloid B-72 varnish. Inpainting of losses was done with conservation-grade paints, after which a final spray varnish coating was applied to the painting.

The frame was surfaced cleaned to removed dirt and grime using a dilute detergent followed by a solvent rinse. Denatured organic solvents were used to thin and reform the current shellac finish on the face surface of the frame to remove the blanching. All detaching pieces of the frame’s surface veneer, including both original pieces and those from past restoration, were temporarily removed in order to begin the consolidation process for the veneer layer. Strips of poplar were cut and glued to the underside of the veneer and inside edge of the pine substrate to create a stable, supportive rabbet and satisfactorily hold the cockling veneer in place. The damage to the edge of the veneer is a direct result of the recent water damage and without the rigid support from this intervening correction the crotch mahogany would be allowed to move, warp, and crack, especially if the weight of the painting was placed directly against the thin, fragile, original veneer. The inside visible edge of the new polar support was stained with mahogany wax and inpainted with conservation-grade paints. A spray coating of fast-drying spray lacquer was applied to the frame’s front veneered surface to re-saturate the rich mahogany.The outer edge of the frame and some intact sections of the old repair were also inpainted in this manner. A backing board of corrugated plastic was then attached to the reverse side of the stretched painting along with the original label, which had been encapsulated in Mylar.

Photographic Documentation