WAACNewsletter
Volume 4, Number 1, Feb. 1982, pp.1-2

An Interim Report on the Conservation of the Arthur F. Mathews Murals in the State Capitol Building in Sacramento

by Benjamin B. Johnson

Arthur Frank Matthews (1860-1945) was one of the most important California painters of his time. It was quite natural that he would be commissioned to design and execute important murals for the State Capitol Building in Sacramento. In 1914, he designed a series of twelve paintings entitled: "An Idealized History of California," to be installed in the main Rotunda. The Rotunda walls are divided into quadrants by doorways located centrally on the transverse axes. Each quadrant is composed of three paintings, with the central painting somewhat greater in vertical dimension. Although the paintings show a diversity of California coastal landscapes, there are compositional elements such as horizon lines, distant hilltops, trees, and even figure groups which are continuous from painting to painting. Pilasters divided the individual paintings, but the whole composition was unified by this continuity of elements and the overall harmony of color scheme and lyrical patterns used by the artist.

The paintings are executed on a medium weight, plain-weave cotton canvas with a relatively thin white ground. The paint film is simple and technique fairly direct. The side paintings in each quadrant are approximately 8 feet x 9 feet, and the center panels 8.5 feet x 9.5 feet. The canvases were most likely painted in a studio and mounted to the prepared plaster walls with an aqueous glue adhesive. The surfaces did not receive a varnish coating at the time of their installation. Mouldings applied around the paintings allowed a visual transition from pilaster to painting.

In the early planning for restoration of the State Capitol, it was decided to conserve the paintings, but to develop a new site, the basement Rotunda, for their installation. The murals were removed in July of 1976 by Jerry Hoepfner and James Alkons. Even though they were given little time, they were able to face the paintings and remove them safely. The faced paintings were rolled on large diameter drums and placed in storage to await the decision on their treatment and reinstallation.

Late in 1980, the State Representatives asked me to act as their Consultant Art Conservator on the treatment and overall conservation of the paintings. The hope was that the treatment of the paintings could be completed for the reopening of the Capitol in early January of 1982. This proved impossible because of a late start and other unforeseen delays, and because the aluminum honeycomb panels, which would serve as the paintings' new auxiliary supports, were not manufactured to specification and had to be remade.

The State decided to use two conservators on the project, James Alkons (Sacramento), and Nathan Zakheim (Los Angeles) so as to reduce the total time required for completion. In my position as consultant it would be possible to coordinate their efforts and insure uniformity of techniques and materials. Another of my responsibilities was to oversee the entire project and relate its progress to the State officials.

Both Conservators examined the paintings and made proposals. I also examined the paintings and worked out contract specifications which required appropriate conservation materials and procedures in keeping with the AIC Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics. The contract requirements essentially incorporated and standardized the proposals of the Conservators with some modifications by the State.

Essentially the Proposal for Treatment involved the following steps:

Photographic and written documentation of condition before treatment and throughout treatment processes. The backs of the paintings were to be cleaned and prepared for lining and subsequent mounting to aluminum honeycomb panels. A wax-resin adhesive, to be agreed upon by the two Conservators and Consulting Art Conservator, would be used for lining and attachment to the panel. The facings would be removed and the paintings cleaned and inpainted as required and final varnish applied.

While the Conservators were cleaning the backs of the paintings, specifications for the large, curved honeycomb panels were developed and quotes obtained from potential manufacturers. A local company which manufactures aircraft panels was awarded the contract to fabricate the panels. The State was obligated to provide a rolled sheet iron form (mold) which was 10 feet x 11 feet, and with the correct curvature. This was used by the manufacturer in laying up the aluminum honeycomb panels to provide the appropriate curvature. Since the twelve installation sites in the new basement rotunda were not all precisely the same dimensions, the panels were made a standard oversized dimension: 8 feet 10 inches x 10 feet.

The Conservators would trim each panel to the exact dimensions required, just prior to mounting the paintings on them. The panels were finished and delivered to the Conservators in early December, 1981.

The paintings had been cleaned and prepared for lining by the time the panels were ready. After mounting some of the paintings to the panels, it was discovered that the adhesive used to fabricate the honeycomb panels was not correct. An inquiry revealed that the adhesive was not the one designated in panel fabrication specifications. After further testing and evaluation, it was decided to reject the panels and have them refabricated with the appropriate adhesive. This caused a yet undetermined delay in completion of the project.

When the new panels are ready, the paintings will be mounted and subsequently installed in the new Rotunda under the Conservators' supervision. The panels, cut to an exact size, will be held in place by architectural mouldings. Since the paintings extend from floor to ceiling, and occupy an area of heavy traffic, various special security measures are being studied to decide which will best protect the vulnerable surfaces.

This has been a brief, very general description of the Mathews Murals Restoration which is only a part of the State Capitol Restoration Project. Countless important and interesting decisions regarding materials and techniques which have been made are not appropriately reported in this newsletter. It is our hope that we can report various aspects of this project in detail at a future WAAC annual meeting.

Benjamin B. Johnson
President, Artcare, Inc.
Consulting Art Conservator
State Capitol Restoration Project

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