Storied portrait in Fauquier courthouse gets needed attention | Fauquier Times-Democrat

By Joey LoMonaco | Fauquier Times-Democrat | June, 5th 2013

It isn't the brushstrokes. It's not the history (although that's a close second). It's the man, the subject who excited local conservator Judith Tartt about her most recent undertaking.

Tartt is renovating the portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall that's hung above the judge's bench in the General District courthouse since 1859.

"It's John Marshall," Tartt said. "He's one of the most important minds we've ever had."

Marshall was born in what is now Midland on Sept. 24, 1755. Under president John Adams, he became the fourth chief justice of the United States. Marshall is largely credited with shaping the system of checks and balances with respect to the judicial branch of government.

The portrait is vertical and features Marshall seated and in his robe. It is nine feet tall and nearly six feet wide.

Fauquier County Buildings and Grounds Manager Ronnie Sheetz was involved in the decision-making for selecting the conservator.

Sheetz consulted directly with the Smithsonian Institution, learning what to expect when selecting a conservator, everything from chemical processes to bids.

He pointed to Tartt's credentials and past work -- which includes restoring a Gilbert Stuart original in the U.S. Treasury building – as distancing her from other bidders.

"She had a lot of past history restoring, conserving," said Sheetz of Tartt. "She had a lot of great references; she's worked on a lot of old stuff."

The John Marshall portrait is indeed old. According to a 1951 article in the Fauquier Democrat, the county commissioned William D. Washington in April of 1859 and later paid him $500 to produce the painting.

Twice history vied to ruin the piece, and twice the people of Warrenton intervened.

During the Civil War, Charles Kemper, concerned about bloodshed encroaching closer and closer to town, arranged to have the painting sent to a Theo Kemper in Cincinnati for safe keeping.

Fire, not gunfire, threatened the portrait a quarter century later.

"When the courthouse was burned in 1889, it was again cut from its frame by some of the young men of Warrenton and removed to a safe place," according to the same newspaper article.

It's fitting that with such a historic painting, Tartt's main task is to minimize the effect of time.

"Time can do a lot of things," she said. "It can cause the paint film to crack, it can cause the paint film to discolor. I can reduce what time has done to an extent, but carefully."

That careful process involves cleaning the surface of the painting, reinforcing the tears, and cleaning the back of the portrait with a scalpel.

Tartt uses ultraviolet lights to monitor her progress every step of the way.

Everything Tartt does to the painting is 100 percent reversible. She can't even use an adhesive that has a permanent sealing agent

But that's the point Tartt isn't trying to leave her mark, but to bring to the forefront what Washington envisioned.

"I look at what he's painted and how he's painted," said Tartt "and I don't embellish it. I go and try to get it and bring it back."

Sheetz hopes the restoration will be done in two months, but he won't rush the process. He knows this piece of Fauquier history deserves its due.

"I just want every step to be properly done," Sheetz said. "We're not going to get this portrait again, if you know what I mean."

LoMonaco, Joey. "Storied Portrait in Fauquier Courthouse Gets Needed Attention." Editorial. Fauquier Times-Democrat [Warrenton] 05 June 2013: A18. Print.