Last week we learned how conservator Lansing Moore from Center Art Studio preserves and prepares objects to go on display in a Museum. Did you know he and his team actually preserved a very special portrait of Eloise on display in our exhibition, Eloise at the Museum?
In 1956 Eloise illustrator Hilary Knight painted this portrait as a birthday present for Eloise author Kay Thompson. But four years later on November 23, 1960, the portrait vanished from The Plaza! On the CBS Evening News, anchor Walter Cronkite announced it: “Eloise kidnapped!”
The mystery remained unsolved for two years, until one night, Knight received a phone call from a muffled voice telling him where to find his artwork―in a trashcan and ripped in pieces. Devastated, he put the ruined Eloise portrait away, hidden in a closet—until now.
With the help of conservators Lansing Moore and Sara Barth Drew, the damaged portrait was repaired and preserved for display in our exhibition. How did they do that? As we get ready to say goodbye to Eloise at the Museum, which closes this Monday, October 9, we sat down with Lansing and Sara to learn how they brought this portrait back to life.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: What was it like at the beginning of the process?
Sara: We had heard rumors about the “lost” Eloise portrait, so when we learned that it had been found and would be coming to us for restoration, we were so excited! I grew up reading the books and have loved Eloise since I was a little girl, so for me personally it was a real thrill.
DCHM: What were you thinking when you unrolled the painting?
Lansing: The painting was rolled up tight at first, so I had no idea what to expect. As we slowly unrolled it, we discovered the original bright colors, all well-preserved. I felt a bit like Carter opening King Tut’s tomb.
Sara: After the initial unrolling, I was thinking many different things: On the one hand, it felt so special to be one of the first people to see the portrait in decades, and I was impressed by how much of the original color and image remained. On the other hand, it was clearly missing many parts, and the pieces that remained were warped and damaged. I was still excited, but the amount of work was a little intimidating.
DCHM: How do you deal with the tears and the missing areas?
Sara: After flattening the pieces and removing the old backing, we fitted the remaining pieces back together. It was like doing a large puzzle—with around 20 percent of the pieces missing.
Lansing: We glued the pieces onto an archival board. (Archival means the board is made of material that will not decay or harm the art over time.) We found a kind of paper that matched Hilary’s original paper, and we used that to make fills for the missing areas. Then we used a special paste to fill the cracks.
DCHM: What do you do about the missing color?
Sara: This is absolutely my favorite part of the restoration process! We need to color the fills we’ve made in order to make the image enjoyable. It can be a lot of trial and error to match the color correctly, but luckily the conservation paints we use are 100 percent reversible, so if the color doesn’t match, we can always remove it and correct it. We use these little hexagonal palettes at the studio to mix our paints, and when those palettes take on the colors of the painting, I know we’re doing a good job. Even though pinks and reds can be difficult colors to match, I feel like we really got there with Eloise!
DCHM: What did you do to protect the painting once you were finished working on it?
Sara: Lansing is a master of archival materials, so while I consulted on the frame style, the material decisions were all made by him. I know the portrait is expertly protected.
As a lifelong lover of Eloise, it was so special to get to be a part of this restoration process—and I’m just happy that the portrait is back together and well-protected for many future generations to enjoy!
Lansing: We chose a special museum acrylic for the glass in the frame because it will prevent any damage to the painting from light, which has ultraviolet rays that can really harm works on paper. We used a 23-karat gold leaf frame that won’t discolor over time and that is strong enough to protect Eloise. I think Eloise will age gracefully from now on.
Don’t miss your chance to see the portrait in the exhibition, only through this Monday, October 9, before Eloise at the Museum closes!