Within the global art community, Palm Beachers are renowned as world-class creators and even better purchasers. But they’re also carving a niche in the field of restoration, and the Friends of the Uffizi Gallery is leading the charge.
Established in 2006, the Friends of the Uffizi Gallery is a nonprofit organization dedicated to funding the restoration of works at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. Millions of visitors travel to the Uffizi every year to view its collection of Renaissance masterpieces, which began with a contribution from the famous Medici family in the mid-1700s.
“The works there are not for Italians, and they’re not for the city of Florence; they’re truly for any art lover in the whole world,” says Lisa Marie Browne, executive director of the Friends of the Uffizi Gallery. “Some people [think] it’s frivolous to spend money on restoration, but when they think about their grandchildren being able to see the same works they’re able to see and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, [they realize] it really is a very important mission.”
The Friends of the Uffizi Gallery has so far funded more than 45 restoration projects, including the creation of the Michelangelo Room, done in partnership with its Italian sister organization, Amici degli Uffizi. The group is now working on a large-scale effort to restore the Valois Tapestries, a collection of eight tapestries given by Catherine de’ Medici (queen of France from 1547-1559) to her granddaughter upon her marriage.
|A section of the Valois Tapestries, Carrousel des chevaliers Bretons et irlandais à Bayonne, circa 1575
Restoring these tapestries, which feature ornate scenes realized in silver and silver-gilt thread, is a long process. Ideally, Brown hopes the tapestries will be completed by 2020, and she plans to bring a group to Florence to view them in all their splendor.
“I’ve never liked tapestries until I saw this,” says Gordon Lewis, an advisory board member of the Friends of the Uffizi Gallery. “It is totally unique in the history of art, tapestries, and Renaissance studies.”
Lewis knows what he’s talking about. Together with his wife, Laney, he runs The Fine Arts Conservancy, an art restoration and conservation center based in West Palm Beach. The Lewises are consulting on the Valois Tapestries, although the actual restoration will be done by a conservator at the Uffizi.
Gordon Lewis’ interest in restoration began when he broke one of his own pre-Columbian statues. Despite living in Manhattan at the time—a city where restorers abound—Lewis decided to fix it himself. He talked his way into the labs at New York University and got to work. Three weeks later, the statue was reconstructed and Lewis had found his calling. “It was like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, and I had a blast,” he says.
|Restorers at The Fine Arts Conservancy exeramine a Rembrandt painting.
Lewis quickly became a premier restorer, accumulating such clients as the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Rockefeller family. In 1996, Lewis relocated his business to West Palm Beach, establishing a 5,000-square-foot studio capable of accommodating a variety of restoration requests across all mediums.
“One of the joys of this business is we don’t know what’s going to come in the door next,” Lewis says. “If you look around here, you’ll see there’s a real potpourri of objects from different times and cultures.”
One day, the Lewises might welcome a Rembrandt painting in need of some TLC. Another, they might uncover a Minoan inlaid dagger, a rare piece its owner mistook for a Chinese spear. And on yet another, they might encounter a children’s dress made of gold thread gifted from an Indian maharaja.
“The dress still had the fragrance from the aromatic spices,” Laney Lewis says. “That was phenomenal to us.”
As varied as the requests are, each project begins with an examination to determine the necessary work and the means of restoration. “This is a problem-solving business,” Laney says. “There’s a lot of analysis and discussion that goes with it.”
The Fine Arts Conservancy has the tools worthy of the masterpieces and treasured objects it restores. Some of the most frequently used evaluation methods include x-rays, ultraviolet photography, and chemical analysis. The conservancy also uses items like an electronic imaging microscopy machine that allows conservators to magnify a piece as they work on it. All of these elements work in concert to allow the Lewises and their team to restore a piece to its original state, one that is reflective of the artist’s intent.
“We are actually the spokesmen for artists,” Laney says. Gordon agrees, adding: “One of the things that’s incredibly important in restoration is to keep the final product in the same milieu as other pieces of that time. You don’t want people to look at it and say, ‘Oh, it’s been restored.’”
Want to learn more? Visit page 2 to read our Q&A with Gordon and Laney Lewis.
PBI.com: Can you describe the Valois Tapestries?
Laney: They’re huge, they’re about 22 feet by about 17 feet. … They were woven with silver and silver-gilt threads, which was a technique that was only reserved for the wealthy people. In the pale light, in the dim light, these things would just be shimmering. They take a cord of silk and the silver is beaten very thin and very narrow and then they wrap it around it and they weave it like other threads.
What did the artist hope to acheive with the tapestries?
Gordon: It’s a display of wealth and power.
|A vapor generator removes old adhesive from paper at The Fine Arts Conservancy.
Do artists make effective art restorers?
Gordon: In general, we do not like to have people who are actively involved in producing art. We don’t like to have artists as conservators, and the reason is they too often put their own imprimatur on it. The practice used to be in New York and I got called into a very prestigious gallery on 57th Street one day and the director showed me a painting that was by Monet. It was an early portrait that he had done when he was just in his early 20s and then somebody had done a restoration on it and it was really different. We did some art historical research and found out that he actually restored this himself when he was in his 60s, and he kept saying to himself “Well, if I were doing this today, I would have done this or I’d have done that.” So we round up really with two different portraits. I said to the guy who owned it, I said “I’m sorry, we’re going to decline this because it’s the historical importance of Monet having redone it himself is so heavy that we’re just not going to touch it.” He understood it.
What do view as your main role as a restorer?
Laney: We are actually the spokesmen for artists.
Gordon: We have to take what we know of the artist, either academically—we’ll study books about the artist, we’ll study books about their technology and their techniques, we’ll call other conservators who worked on paintings by this artist—all these things go into a matrix where we make decisions on what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.
|An example of partial varnish removal (left) and the effects of UV light (right).
What kind of problems does a Florida climate pose to the maintenance of art?
Gordon: The majority of destruction in art occurs from failure in the material on the art’s surface itself, and that’s generally generated from expansion and contraction of the work because they’re what’s called hydroscopic, that is that they take on and give off moisture in relation to their surrounding environment. So when you have a really humid day they swell a little bit—it’s imperceptible to the human eye but it happens—they swell and once it’s a dry day then they contract. This repeated cycle eventually breaks the bond between the canvas and the art materials. So that’s what we see a lot of down here.
Toward that end, several decades ago, I developed a very sophisticated framing system for the National Gallery in Washington. It’s now de rigeuer in many, many institutions because it is a totally sealed system, humidity cannot get out or get in. Temperature can rise or fall and that of course affects the dew point of the air inside, but there’s very, very little air—almost none. And then the materials that we have in the framing system both absorb and give off moisture in accordance to the humidty around it, but it stabilizes.
What’s the evaluation process when a new piece comes into your studio?
Gordon: Every one requires a different process. We do some testing to make sure what we’re going to use on it is not detrimental to the piece. Usually we have enough experience that we know it’s not going to be, but we still have to test it because God forbid we run into a problem. And I’ve seen colleagues of mine who run into problems.
Laney: The paintings come in here, in our photographic room. So we’ll take it, put it on the easel. We use UV lights and different lights on it and from different angles. We’ll do a breaking light. Having the light flow across it really highlights some things that are wrong with it, the surface in particular. Then we can turn it around and shine a light through it. That lets us know the strength of the canvas and any breaks in the paint layer. So it starts in here.
It seems like every piece that comes in, it’s a different challenge.
Gordon: We love that.