Conservator’s Notebook: One Busy Friday

The tapestry in the Margaret Ford Tower at the Burns Library is attached to a wooden crossbeam support and hoisted from both sides with a pulley system.  Photo courtesy of McMullen Museum.

The tapestry in the Margaret Ford Tower at the Burns Library is attached to a wooden crossbeam support and hoisted from both sides with a pulley system. Photo courtesy of McMullen Museum.

At the risk of sounding cliché, there is never a dull moment working in the conservation department at Burns Library. Each work day is greeted with a new set of challenges and deadlines. However, some days at Burns are especially eventful and require a sort of patience and tact, a careful coordination on the part of staff and visitors that a relatively new hire, like myself, can only stand back and admire. Friday, November 8th was one of those days.

The day began by preparing for the removal of a large 17th century Flemish tapestry and the installation of a second Flemish tapestry in the Ford Tower. Under the auspices of the McMullen Museum of Art, the tapestry collection, with different tapestries cycled in periodically, were a gift of The Hearst Foundation in memory of William Randolph Hearst, the late 19th and early 20th century newspaper magnate. The tapestries are attached to a wooden crossbeam support and hoisted from both sides with a pulley system. However, before any work could be done on the tapestry, all of the furniture underneath it had to be removed and relocated. After some careful maneuvering, and the reclamation of office space for furniture storage, the Ford Tower was ready to host the crew from the McMullen Museum, Museum Textiles Services, and Boston College Facilities Management that were in charge of changing out the tapestry.

<i>A Tear and a Prayer for Erin</i>, painted by R. G. Kelly between 1848 and 1851, depicts the plight of evicted Irish men and women during the famine.

A Tear and a Prayer for Erin, painted by R. G. Kelly between 1848 and 1851, depicts the plight of evicted Irish men and women during the famine.

We were then ready to face the second major project of an already busy Friday. It was time to prepare a painting displayed in the Irish Room for storage, shipment, and eventual exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland. The painting, by Robert G. Kelly, entitled A Tear and a Prayer for Erin,  was painted between 1848 and 1851.  It depicts the plight of evicted Irish men and women during the famine. The painting, an important work of art, has been on display in the Burns Library’s Irish Room since 2000.  On November 8, the painting began the first steps in a journey that will take it across the Atlantic. There were many different interests and individuals that converged in the Irish Room to witness and take part in the preparation of the Kelly piece. Representing the Burns Library was Conservator, Barbara Adams Hebard, who was charged with ensuring the entire operation went smoothly and compiling a meticulous condition report, detailing the physical state of the painting, judging the age and extent of damage the painting has incurred in its over 150 year history.  The cast of characters also included: arts movers from ARTEX Fine Art Services; Anthony Mourek, owner of the painting who had driven up from New York to oversee the process; and Sean Rainbird, the Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, who had come directly from the airport.  All were gathered to check the condition of the painting and to ensure its safe preparation for shipping.

In addition to Conservator Barbara Adams Hebard and myself, arts movers from ARTEX Fine Art Services; Anthony Mourek, owner of the painting; and Sean Rainbird, the Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, were present.  Photo by Kevin Tringale.

In addition to Conservator Barbara Adams Hebard and myself, arts movers from ARTEX Fine Art Services; Anthony Mourek, owner of the painting; and Sean Rainbird, the Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, were present. Photo by Kevin Tringale.

I played a very small role in the production. My main task was to observe, which I did willingly and with fascination. I also served an important social function, entertaining Mr. Mourek, learning the origins of the painting, how it had come into the owner’s possession, and with Mr. Rainbird, discussing my plans after graduation, comparing job prospects in the United States and Ireland, and deploring the often bleak appreciation of the arts and humanities that too often prevails within the government on both sides of the Atlantic. I felt as if I was back in the art history course that I took my freshman year. The rhetoric was the same with attention to the painter’s choice of color and style.

Mr. Rainbird, Director of the National Gallery or Ireland, and Burns Conservator Barbara Adams Hebard inspect the Kelly painting as I stand by.   Photo by Anthony Mourek.

Mr. Rainbird, Director of the National Gallery or Ireland, and Burns Conservator Barbara Adams Hebard inspect the Kelly painting as I stand by. Photo by Anthony Mourek.

After several hours, the successful removal of the painting and documentation of its condition completed, we were ready to leave the Irish Room and the space on the wall where the R.G. Kelly painting once hung. Feeling a bit exhausted and proud that a challenge was completed, Barbara and I made our way to the lobby of Ford Tower where the replacement Flemish tapestry was about ready to be hoisted into position on the wall.  I was quickly recruited to grab the rope on the right side of the tapestry, instructed to pull in increments, coordinated with Camille Breeze, Director of Museum Textiles Services and a carpenter on the other side.  Looking on were Diana Larsen, Assistant Director, McMullen Museum, and students from FA242.01,  “Introduction to the Conservation of Works of Art.” These critics were only too willing to contend that maybe it should go up just a little bit more on one side or the other.

That task too was soon finished, drawing to a close an unusual Friday. The maneuvering and running around was done for the day. The Kelly painting had begun its journey abroad, and the Ford Tower had a new tapestry to adorn its wall. After I left work that evening, and waited for the shuttle down at Conte Forum, I was anxious to get back to my apartment to tell my roommates about what I had worked on that day.

James Heffernan

  • James Heffernan, A & S, Boston College Class of 2015.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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