GEORGE STOUT'S LEGACY
Marjorie B. Cohn
It begins to look as if the household of art [is] getting cluttered by machines … alien lamps turned on the works of the masters, tubes that throw out invisible rays, microscopes, and chemicals, and cameras … Some say they are all good and useful. Some say they are useless and misleading. Perhaps the present is as fair a time as any to take stock of these machines and the grist they grind.
THE “PRESENT” of the above quotation passed decades ago. These words were written by George Leslie Stout and sent to Edward Waldo Forbes. Stout was interested in all aspects of conservation and competent in many; here he stated one of his particular concerns: the reconciliation of the developments of modern science—his “machines”—and the technical faculties and aesthetic sensibilities of traditional art restoration and historical scholarship.
Stout's close study of the English situation in 1938 sharpened this concern. Forty years ago he reported:
The only defect in the English procedure [for the preservation of the nation's artistic heritage] is the absence of any very well travelled bridge between restoration … and research. There is much which the practical daily contact with the treatment of pictures can do to ballast and enrich investigation, and the men in London who are doing either kind of work separately have yet to become consolidated into a group that works, not only in cooperation but in actual unity.
He believed that such a consolidation would beget a new profession, that of conservation. He directed his professional life, in his own understated, humorous, yet single-minded way, toward the realization of this conception.
Stout was concerned that neither the proponents nor the detractors of science become carried away with their particular advocacies. He judged that the “machines … have a certain tribute to bring. It would be folly to underrate it because of excitement about its apparent novelty.” Yet he understood perfectly that the ultimate reconciliation could not be achieved through the science of machines. The picture and the person confronting it were the essentials; “The machines are not truth detectors,” he affirmed.
The balance of … all is the ability to read the facts in the only repository of those facts: the thing itself. Lenses and rays and reagents help to analyse the conditions in a picture, but the first and final analyses have got to be made in the mind of a skilled observer.
George Stout died only lately. He remained concerned to the last days of his life for this reconciliation. In 1977 he felt that his own and the next generation of the new profession had made but a beginning.
The shape of the body of knowledge that is conservation … is rough, ungainly, and undernourished. To those who look closely the shape must seem little more than a wobbly skeleton. Muscle and sinew have yet to grow.
How unfamiliar this skeleton must seem to the younger generation of conservators, brought up under the panoply of national and international professional organizations, scholarly technical publications, committees on standards, educational facilities—the apparatus of a complete discipline that stands ready to receive, judge, and reward the efforts of the young. But even as Stout's death was announced the factions that he had struggled to reconcile into a productive harmony reasserted themselves as if on cue, as if to warn the profession that Stout's concern that only a beginning had been made should in fact be taken as a warning.
George Stout believed in the value of science in conservation, but ultimately his science was not that of machines. Implicit in his “science” is the source of the word itself in the Latin scientia: knowledge. In 1931 he wrote, “What is needed … is not only technical competence, but something for the want of a better name I shall call aesthetic judgment, and beyond that a genuinely scientific point of view.” This attitude, this understanding, should be George Stout's legacy to his profession and to art. He could not realize it by simply leaving it to us, however. It will survive him only if we continue it by continuing not only the institutions, procedures, and standards that George Stout formulated over fifty years but also the state of mind that he formed. Preservation is good enough only for inanimate art; minds and scientia must grow to survive. If they do, Stout's rough body of knowledge, his “mongrel pup that had crawled through the academic fence,” will have become worthy of his efforts.