Unknown to the artist's wife, unlisted in his catalogue raisonne' and recently in danger of being ripped down, two giant murals painted by famed muralist Edward Laning have been discovered and saved at the Mayflower Hotel.
The Italianate paintings, each about 25 feet long and 14 feet high, show two formal gardens with pools, fountains, topiary arches, stone cherubs, urns, balustrades and steps, all leading off into the distance.
Laning, whose last completed commission was the $300,000 mural for the Ogden, Utah, railroad museum just before his death in 1981, is best known for his Works Project Administration murals of immigrants made for Ellis Island. Those murals, recently restored and installed in a courthouse in Federal Plaza, Brooklyn, were once exhibited here at the National Archives. His murals for the New York Public Library, another WPA project, are also well known.
Kingdon Gould Jr., one of the owners of the Mayflower Hotel, tells the story this way:
During the current $55 million restoration of the Mayflower, decorators took one look at the dirty, dusty and dulled murals on two walls of a former meeting room, long closed off in the hopes of renovation. "Strip them off," the decorators recommended. Another opinion suggested they be saved as a fine surface for a new coat of paint.
Gould, however, liked the murals. "They'd been around a long time and I was concerned with retaining the original look of the hotel. So I called Hiram H. Hoelzer, in New York. He's a fine painting restorer who has worked for me over the years."
Gould described the murals, which were signed, and asked Hoelzer, "Do you know anything about a muralist called Edward Laning?"
It was roughly like asking if Simon had ever heard of Garfunkel. Hoelzer, with Karel Yasko, the great art preservationist of the General Services Administration, had been instrumental in saving Laning's Ellis Island murals. Hoelzer had cleaned and restored not only those, but many more Laning paintings and murals.
Hoelzer came down to Washington, certified them as honest-to-goodness Lanings, not only by the signature "Edward Laning and Philip Read" on the base of one of the columns in the paintings, but also by the style.
Hoelzer has since cleaned and varnished the murals, to be a chief attraction when the room is reopened Sept. 15 as the Cafe' Promenade, a 150-table restaurant off the grand hall of the restored Mayflower lobby.
The great skylight in the center of the room, covered over during World War II and desecrated with velvet flocking by later whims in decoration, is also being restored to its sun and moonlit glitter.
Howard E. Wooden, director of the Wichita (Kan.) Art Museum, who a year or so ago mounted a retrospective of Laning's work, said he knew of hundreds of Laning's works, but he'd never heard of these.
"Without seeing them, I can't say," Wooden said, "but they sound like the sort of thing he was interested in from about 1945 to 1955. He'd visited Italy twice, when he was commissioned by Life Magazine for sketches and paintings during World War II and later on a Guggenheim fellowship. He came back all fired up over Italian art, architecture and landscape design."
Wooden said he didn't know of Philip Read, whose name is also on the painting. "But typically Laning would do a cartoon, a small painting, which then would be copied using a grid pattern on the larger field. He often had someone who helped stir the paint and transfer the design."
The painter's widow, Mary Fife Laning, herself a painter, said she didn't remember the Mayflower works. "But then, Edward was bad about keeping records. What's important is that it's pretty and cheerful." Laning's cousin, Kaleb B. Laning of Falls Church, said he'd never heard the painter speak of them.
James Massey, the historian who is restoration consultant for the Mayflower, said he dates the murals to the late 1950s, when the restaurant, called the Palm Court since the hotel opened in 1925, became La Chatelaine. Later it was a meeting room, and then closed off for some time.
"These Lanings were no trouble to restore, though they were very dirty and dimmed by all that dust," said Hoelzer. "They had never been varnished. I've worked on so many of his, I knew what to expect. It took me and my staff about a week to restore--we've been working from 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m."
The job paled in comparison to another recent Hoelzer project, a pair of full-length ancestor portraits he was faced with in a Virginia plantation house. "The owner had four bullmastiffs, each weighing about 200 pounds. The dogs were always brushing against those big paintings. When I saw them, the lower halves of the paintings were in shreds. Nothing to do but cut them off and make busts of them."