Last week, Harriet Lowndes Aiken, a leading Charleston matron from the 19th century, left her drawing room for the first time in decades and made a short trip out of town.
Her life-sized canvas from 1825 now hangs inside the Warren Lasch Conservation Center at Clemson University’s Restoration Institute, where it is receiving a 21st-century sprucing up.
It’s no small job. Calling Harriet Aiken’s 16-foot by 9-foot image a painting is like calling the neighboring Confederate submarine Hunley a maritime artifact.
One of the largest portraits ever commissioned by a Charlestonian, this work by artist George Whiting Flagg shows several signs of age, specifically cracking, cupping and an unwanted coat of grime that has built up since her last major restoration in 1977.
Historic Charleston Foundation curator Brandy Culp worked with Harold Bowen, great, great grandson of Harriet and Gov. William Aiken, to select and finance the conservation project. Culp did not want to mention its price tag but agreed it will cost about as much as a new car.
Conservator Catherine Rogers intends to inject adhesive into the painting’s cracks to help it structurally. Aesthetically, Mrs. Aiken will benefit from a cleaning of her old varnish and grime, which will make her appear more colorful and three-dimensional.
Nancy Newton will conserve the massive wooden frame by replacing missing pieces of compo and regilding it. “They will be gilded but still distressed — rather than bringing it up to the way it would have looked like when it was new,” she says.
Their art will be shaped in part by high-tech documentation that Clemson’s conservationists offer. Not only is the painting getting scanned before and after, so there’s a complete record of the changes made, but it also will be X-rayed soon.
That procedure, which will necessitate closing off a nearby street to the public, could determine if Flagg left sketch marks or even earlier bits of painting underneath the final portrait.
Benjamin Rennison, an archaeologist and technology specialist with the Restoration Institute, says the combination of X-ray and 3-D imaging can help guide the conservation decisions. “We’re not sure, but we think this is the first time Harriet has been to North Charleston,” he says.
Once the restoration is completed this fall, the portrait will be returned to the Aiken Rhett House museum at 48 Elizabeth St. But it won’t hang over the window in the main drawing room, where it has hung for many decades.
Instead, it will be moved into the house’s art gallery, which not only is its only climate controlled space but also is where the painting was displayed in the 19th century, according to historical records.
“She’s going home,” Culp said.