- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2000

RICHMOND The state Capitol is becoming Virginia's most stately art studio.

This summer, visitors will find two major conservation projects under way on the second floor of the nation's second-oldest (behind Maryland's) working Capitol.

In the Old Senate Chamber, the wall-size painting, "Storming of a British Redoubt by American Troops at Yorktown" by the 19th-century French artist Louis Eugene Lami, is being painstakingly cleaned with cotton swabs.

Work started in May and could take another five months.

Starting in August in the nearby Rotunda, the state's most prized piece of art the Houdon sculpture of George Washington and the seven marble busts of Virginia-born presidents and one of the Marquis de Lafayette will be cleared of decades of grime. That project should end by late September or early October.

Washington and Lafayette both creations of noted French artist Jean Antoine Houdon and the painting were last cleaned in 1973.

"It's a rare opportunity for them to see how these things are preserved, and that can be even more exciting than just seeing the work itself," said Tracy L. Kamerer, curator of the state's art collection at the Library of Virginia, who's worked with the House and Senate clerks' offices on the projects.

Cleaning the painting is a mammoth undertaking that will cost an estimated $100,000.

First off, the oil painting measures 11 feet high by 16 feet wide. It's displayed in a gold-leaf original frame that alone weighs at least 300 pounds.

The Old Senate Chamber has been converted into a conservation lab as L. Cleo Mullins of Richmond, a professional conservator of paintings, rubs away aging varnish and grit.

After the old layer of varnish is removed, the painting will be cleaned, repaired and retouched. Then a fresh coat of varnish will be applied, which will bring out the colors and brighten the painting while also protecting it.

The room has been stripped of its displays and furniture and is closed to the public, although the curious can watch the work in a viewing booth that's been erected in a doorway.

"I am the exhibit," Miss Mullins joked.

What onlookers see is a room covered in sheets, with elaborate scaffolding in front of the unframed painting that no longer hangs on the wall.

To prepare the project, a five-member crew from a professional art-handling firm hoisted the frame off the portrait and then moved it across the room to its temporary resting place.

Miss Mullins has cleaned about one-third of the painting since she started May 22. She will be joined later by Lorraine Brevig, who works for Miss Mullins' company and will do retouches after repairs. Others from her company, the Richmond Conservation Studio, will also assist in the project.

Miss Mullins works inch-by-inch, gently touching the surface with a cotton swab dipped in a cleaning solution of water-soluble and organic solvents.

The work is hot. Bright lights illuminate the spot where she's working, bent over, perched on scaffolding.

"By and large, the painting is in great shape for one from the mid-19th century and one of this size," she said.

Meanwhile, the statuary project is expected to start Aug. 14. Two conservators from Colonial Williamsburg, Scott Webster Nolley and Amy M. Fernandez, will lead that effort, which should cost no more than $27,315.

Built-up grime will be removed, minor repairs made and protective coatings applied to restore the marble statuary to their full splendor.

The duo will start with the Washington statue. Cleaning likely will take a full month and should bring out the original lustrous sheen of the Carrera marble.

"It is incredibly dirty," Mr. Nolley said.

The life-size statue, completed in 1788, is considered a perfect likeness of the country's first president.

"Arguably, this is the most important piece of American sculpture there is," Mr. Nolley said.

Also slated for cleaning is the iron picket fence that surrounds the statue. At least five coats of paint cover the fence, last painted a milky alabaster to match the marble.

Then the 1788 bust of Lafayette, the dirtiest of the busts, will be tackled. The seven Virginians will follow, which are expected to take between two and four days each.

The statuary will remain in their stands, and the duo will use scaffolding to reach the pieces. The cleaning arsenal will include cotton swabs, little scrub brushes and washcloths.

The cleaning provides conservators a good opportunity to study the artwork.

"There's a lot to be learned," Mr. Nolley said. "A lot of the older repairs cover the original material, and we will learn more about the stability and the way it was made. It unravels a tale to be told."

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