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THE HUNTINGTON’S GLORIOUS RESTORATION

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is up on all threes again after a year of cleanup and renovation. On Tuesday, the Huntington’s gallery will reopen its doors to the public, revealing its beloved old self amid a glow of subtle alterations.

Deprived of its art gallery by a fire last October that only destroyed one artwork but did extensive smoke damage, the grand triumvirate of British and American culture has been limping along with characteristic dignity in the interim. Visitors have continued to stroll through the resplendent gardens and to peruse the literary treasures in the library on the 207-acre complex in San Marino.

The faithful also have kept in touch with their favorite couple of portraits, Sir Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie” and Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy,” which were quickly rescued, cleaned and temporarily rehung in the library’s gallery.

But now the perennially youthful twosome has returned to the refurbished gallery in railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington’s former home--along with dozens of other canvases, hundreds of porcelain, bronze and silver objects and whole rooms of furniture, carpets and tapestries. The Huntington is whole again.

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All washed, vacuumed, poulticed, swabbed, sanded, earthquake-proofed, recovered and painted, the stately mansion and its priceless contents look wonderful. But Curator Robert R. Wark, who has guided the operation, doesn’t expect everyone to be pleased with the new look immediately.

“Our art experiences are so conditioned by their surroundings that any change upsets expectations,” he said. So he anticipates that “the good, average visitor” will object to the refurbishment and reinstallation--but only temporarily.

Viewers who don’t remember the former position of every object or the colors of walls may notice no change at all, except that the gallery has the fresh look of a garden that has just dried itself off after a spring shower.

The fire that smoldered in the gallery’s elevator and exploded around midnight last Oct. 17 was put out so quickly that it claimed only one painting--Sir Joshua Reynolds’ 1777 portrait of Mrs. Edwin Lascelles--but it deposited oily grime and a smoky stench on every object in the Georgian mansion. Gummy streaks stained the walls, plaster moldings cracked and fell from the hall ceiling. A gray pallor fell on all the draperies and upholstery fabrics. Even artworks that appeared unhurt were covered with a film of grease and carbon.

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Relieved that the actual loss of art was slight but appalled by the mess, staff members put on their grubbies and set to work. Help came from docent volunteers and from the professional ranks of the J. Paul Getty Museum and many other institutions.

Jim Greaves, a consulting conservator to the Huntington for paintings, removed the soot from all 110 paintings while volunteers painstakingly swabbed the ornate frames with cotton balls and Q-Tips. Barbara Roberts, the Getty’s energetic conservator of decorative arts and sculpture, swept in and organized the cleaning, wrapping, packing and documentation of furniture and three-dimensional objects.

“Imagining a worst-case scenario, I see just how devastating this would be if a museum like this were in the middle of Nebraska,” Wark said. “We had a wealth of expertise within miles and a wonderful flow of support. Most of the workers were paid--by us or their own institution--but they came at great inconvenience.

“Closing the gallery and losing a picture were the two negative things that came from the fire,” Wark continued. But, by his account, so much else has turned out positively that the tragedy is now seen as, well, not a blessing, but certainly an opportunity to dress up a fading dowager.

One of the things that people love about the Huntington is that it never seems to change. The splendid estate has an air of permanent elegance patterned after 18th-Century England. But, in fact, the gallery had slipped in recent years, even as it had gained such magnificent acquisitions as Judge and Mrs. Lucius P. Green’s collection of Old Master paintings and Virginia Steele Scott’s 50-picture holding of American masterworks.

Even as it opened a new gallery for American art (provided by the Scott bequest), the Huntington was working to increase its inadequate endowment (established in 1927) and to keep pace with inflation. Meantime, conservation, lighting and earthquake standards had changed. The costs of upkeep and refurbishing a mansion in the grand style associated with the Huntington had become exorbitant.

“Most of the gallery really hadn’t been touched for over half a century,” said Wark, who joined the Huntington 30 years ago. He credits “the full support” of Huntington Director Robert Middlekauff with seeing that everything was done right after the fire--"cleaning, redecorating and reinstallation to contemporary standards.”

The Huntington couldn’t spend $15,000 per window to have new draperies woven by Scalamandre in Italy, but it did manage to replace the frayed draperies in the dining room and to reverse all the others so that worn parts are hidden. Another big item was a new skylight for the main gallery. In poor condition for a decade, it transmitted more than twice as much light as is currently acceptable for the health of paintings.

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According to Middlekauff, the cost of the renovation came close to $1 million. Emergency grants from the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities brought in $47,500. Gifts from the Michael J. Connell Foundation, corporations and individuals covered the balance.

Most of the money was needed for labor, which isn’t finished. Four large tapestries are still being cleaned at Derelian & Son in Santa Cruz.

“The tapestries caused the most concern,” Wark said. After extended deliberations, consultants agreed that the artworks should be washed even though the process would cause shrinkage and expose weak places that would require reweaving. One vast French tapestry has weathered the treatment and has been returned to its wall in the mansion with only its newly exposed borders exuding evidence of the trauma. Instead of stretching fabrics onto frames, textile conservators now prefer to suspend them loosely, so the tapestry hangs from a strip of Velcro.

Two cases of Chelsea porcelain vases have yet to be installed because each object must have a custom-made plexiglass mount to hold it securely yet allow it to be removed for study. The vases are among objects that were stuck fast to shelves by glue or wax and had to be reinstalled according to contemporary earthquake standards.

Deborah Silguero, an independent conservator, and her crew are still involved in the tedious operation. “It’s a rather self-defeating process,” Wark chuckled. “If you do it perfectly, no one can see it.” Only the sharpest eyes will detect the plexiglass cylinders holding the porcelain or the meticulously painted metal straps that attach sculptures to marble table tops. In awe of the complex project, Wark said he has “nightmares that the job will get done and the preparators will go away without giving us the book of instructions.”

Most of the completed work simply restores the original aspect of the Huntington. New plaster moldings, for example, exactly replicate the originals. But there are important changes, most notably in the dining room and the main gallery.

The dining room’s 30-year-old gray-green walls are now a light yellow, the new draperies are gold. It’s “livelier,” Wark noted, with characteristic understatement. Among other desirable effects of the warm hue is that it sets off carved contours of the white painted woodwork.

The main gallery--home to “Pinkie,” “Blue Boy” and a host of other full-length English portraits--also has been redecorated. The green fabric-covered walls, which had “faded to the point of being a non-color,” according to Wark, are swathed in gold cotton damask, woven in Italy in the Huntington’s personal pattern.

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The furniture beneath the paintings no longer fades into the woodwork, which has traded its old blue-green coat for a fresh white one. The same soft white runs throughout the gallery. “The whites used to vary subtly from one room to another, but we could never match them,” Wark said. “They always looked like the tail end of a rainbow.” As for the art itself, Wark has made relatively few adjustments.

One is in the small library housing a connoisseur’s selection of Renaissance bronzes. The dark room now has a cleaner appearance that focuses attention on those special pieces. The piece de resistance , Giovanni Bologna’s 16th-Century “Nessus and Deianira,” no longer competes with showy paintings. Instead, its backdrop is a length of red velvet from about the same period.

Another change is in the hall, where Sir Martin Archer Shee’s portrait of “Mrs. William Grenfell and Her Son” has replaced poor Mrs. Lascelles across from the elevator.

Elsewhere, Wark saw no point in shaking up the former arrangement of paintings. They had been put in their accustomed places for good reasons.

“I had nothing to do with the arrangement in the main gallery,” said the man who has had the good sense to leave well enough alone at the Huntington. “Reynolds’ portrait of Mrs. Siddons has to be in the position of honor. She’s so commanding and dignified.

“The only two paintings that won’t kill her off with color are beside her. ‘Pinkie’ and ‘Blue Boy’ actually look better in more intimate surroundings, but they must be in the gallery that accommodates large groups of people. And they have to be singled out (and paired on opposite sides of room). After that, everything else falls into place.”

If there’s an air of inevitability about all this, it’s perfectly proper. No museum has a better group of full-length British portraits in the grand manner. Not even in England. The Huntington’s self-guided tour book doesn’t lie when it says these portraits “provide an unrivaled opportunity to study this phase of English art.”

Some things really never do change at the Huntington. Even the program of exhibitions will resume soon. A show of British watercolor landscapes from Southern California collections is scheduled to open in November.

Not to worry. The Huntington is the same after the fire, only better.


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