1859 John Marshall portrait has its lustre restored

The huge portrait in Mrs. Tartt's studio.
The 10-week restoration continues.
Mrs. Tartt with the portrait before its return to the courthouse.

By Mark Trible | Fauquier NOW | July, 3rd 2013

He made it 154 years.

From his parlor chair, John Marshall kept watch in a 5-by-9-foot oil portrait behind the bench of the Fauquier County General District courtroom.

Aside from a trip to Cincinnati for safekeeping during the Civil War and rescue from a courthouse fire in 1886, Mr. Marshall continuously looked over proceedings.

On April 16, the likeness of the longest-serving chief justice in American history disappeared from the Warrenton courtroom.

He went to Judith Watkins Tartt's studio outside of town.

A native of Washington, D.C., who began conserving art in the mid-1970s, Mrs. Tartt worked tirelessly on the project. So much so that she and "John" knew one another on a first-name basis by the time he returned to the courthouse Tuesday, July 2.

"It's great on a lot of levels," Mrs. Tartt said. "It's a great painting, because it's monumental. It's a great man. It makes me feel a part of Warrenton. Every time I drive or walk by the courthouse, I'll know a part of me is here."

William D. Washington – a Clarke County native who lived in Fauquier – painted the portrait in 1859.

The county paid him $500, the equivalent of about $14,000 today.

Fauquier paid $20,138 for the portrait's recent restoration.

Although the painting already needed conservation, an errant toss made Mrs. Tartt's work immediately necessary.

Tossing keys to a colleague, a court bailiff overshot the mark. The keys hit and tore a small hole in the portrait.

When Mrs. Tartt got the contract, she emphasized that her repair and enhancement could be undone if better conservation techniques came along.

She undertook a 14-step process to restore "John."

First, she carefully cleaned the painting. With a small scalpel, Mrs. Tartt painstakingly removed any dirt, grime or weave irregularities from the back.

Then, she prepared a support for the portrait and relined it. Once Mrs. Tartt finished a complete cleansing, she began "inpainting" – a restoration technique used to retouch.

She added new hanging hardware and put a non-acidic backing board to add support after inpainting.

Her objective remained clear: To preserve the portrait and the intent of Mr. Washington's strokes.

"It's like choreography, because you plan every single move out in your head," she said. "You always know exactly what you're doing.

"There are no shortcuts; every step has to be perfect. If it's not, your next step will be off."

When movers from Bonsai Fine Arts in Glen Burnie, Md., encountered problems resetting the painting Tuesday, Mrs. Tartt couldn't watch.

After the removal of a piece of molding from the wall, the former chief justice returned to his rightful place.

Sheriff's Deputy John Joerger has worked in the courthouse for a year and has the seen portrait's impact on the courtroom.

"He's definitely the focal point of the courthouse," said Deputy Joerger, 24. "People who come in the court sometimes stare at the painting instead of paying attention to what's going on."

For 75 days, Marshall's absence remained a hot topic.

"It felt awkward," Fauquier County General District Court Judge Gregory Ashwell said. "I've been in this courtroom since 1982 (as a prosecutor and judge), and to walk in and see that blank, it was odd to not see the icon of this courthouse here for the first time.

"It felt like a missing body part."

While the movers attempted to hang the portrait, Mrs. Tartt remarked about the other 20 portraits in the courtroom.

Some hang crooked. Others need restoration.

"Sometimes, people don't notice art unless they're looking at it," she said.

Now, it's hard not to notice Mr. Washington's original work.

"I think it looks great," Judge Ashwell said. "The detail it has, I never realized before. It's extraordinary."

Mrs. Tartt wanted to complete the restoration by Independence Day.

She finished two days before July 4.

The famous jurist, born just east of what today's Midland in 1755, will hang in the courtroom as the country celebrates its 237th birthday.

As an architect of our judicial system, Mr. Marshall's location seems perfect.

"He's going back to work," Mrs. Tartt said. "He's going back to court."

For more information on art restoration, visit Mrs. Tartt's website at www.art-care.com.

Source: http://www.fauquiernow.com/index.php/fauquier_news/article/john-marshall-portrait-has-its-lustre-restored-2013