For As Long as I can remember, the painting Leaned against the wall under the eaves in my mother's attic. It was of a three-masted clipper ship full-sheeted on an angry sea. My siblings and I, now that we are grown and find the painting dominates many of our conversations, marvel at how small an impression it made on us when we were young.
Although the painting came from my father's family, it was my mother who imparted its lore. She came from an English family which brags about its ancestors who took part in the American Revolution. She practiced tolerance toward my father's Scottish farming relations, who had only been here since the 1850s.
She told us the ship had belonged to a pirate who left Scotland just ahead of the hangman's noose. Sometimes he was a horse thief, and other times a traitor who had run guns to the Confederates during the Civil War. And if words were not proof of his bad character there were black stains on the steel blade of his sword, also kept in the attic, that only could have been caused by blood.
Two years ago my mother told us the painting must be removed because the dampness from the woods surrounding her house was rotting its fragile canvas. In the interest of preserving the past, more than out of an appreciation for the painting, I said I would take it.
When the painting arrived I found dirt had all but obliterated the ship. The baggy canvas had large patches of missing paint and what remained was cracked into hundreds of tiny mosaics. Its general air of hopelessness reminded me of a stray terrier I once took in out of the rain.
I showed it to a friend who has good luck buying damaged paintings that later turn out to be valuable. He looked at it and sniffed, "Well, I would have it restored because it's from the family." And added: "It shouldn't be a difficult job because the artist's style is simple and should be easy to copy."
Dejected, I put the painting in the basement where it was frequently knocked about and stepped on by children and pets.
Not until my mother's sister came to town a year later for a DAR convention did the subject of the painting come up again. Inevitably the conversation turned to genealogy and family possessions. I dodged her efforts to engage me in one of her projects by saying I would be working on the restoration of the painting.
Against better advice and judgment I went to a newspaper advertisement to find a restorer of oil paintings.
A few days later I opened the door to a young man with curling, shoulder-length hair, elegant hands and the thin nose of a Renaissance nobleman. "This is a good painting," Stephen Kniss told me. "It's in bad shape, but I've worked on worse. Although it will never be of museum quality because the damage is so extensive."
As Kniss worked, I learned the subtleties of conservation and restoration are hotly debated topics in today's art circles.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., curator of Dutch and Flemish art at the National Gallery of Art and frequent lecturer on conservation and restoration, told me: "The conservator's job is to keep a painting as much as possible in the state in which it was intended to be seen."
The trouble arises over the phrase "the state in which it was intended to be seen." It places awesome responsibility on the conservators to interpret how Rubens, Rembrandt or W. Clark intended a painting to look. This job grows proportionally more difficult as the painting ages.
In the restoration debate, two camps have emerged. The "scientific" or "American" method of restoration has been criticized for its heavy-handedness and its reliance on X-rays, infrared light, electron microscopes and synthetic materials. Detractors claim the works restored by this method look too new, often show indecisions or mistakes made by the artist (that he would not want seen) and show unharmonious patches of color where pigments have aged at different rates.
The "esthetic" or "Continental" method tries to maintain or, if it is not there, to create, the rich patina of Old Masters. Practitioners tend to cover up evidence of the artist's indecisions (which they believe the painter would not want revealed) and glaze over original paint in an effort to create uniform coloration. They also make heavy use of resin-based varnishes that permeate the paint and give the painting the rich luster the conservators prize. These varnishes, however, tend to yellow in 10 or 15 years, making it necessary to clean the painting again.
"A painting restored by either method basically looks the same in the end," Wheelock said. "Unfortunately, what is really a philosophical argument has exploded into an unpleasant political battle."
" Really, the differences can be measured by degrees. Neither side is totally scientific nor totally interpretive. It's just that the so called esthetic school is more interpretive."
" I think what the National Gallery does is safer. Every step of the process is reversable: all the varnish and paint used is removable. We do nothing to change the original paint. Every time you work on an old painting you're taking a chance."
No high-toned debates waged over restoration of my painting, which was done by the American method. Not only because the artist, W. Clark, was not an Old Master, but because the painting was so decrepit it left few choices.
First, to ensure no more loose paint fell away from the canvas, Kniss painted on a thin layer of wax and placed the painting on a vacuum hot table, a device which has a low, even heating element. Then, using gentle suction, he pulled the mosaic chips against the canvas where they stuck once the wax cooled, making the painting a smooth surface again.
After cleaning the picture with an ammonia solution, he waxed the painting to an aluminum panel. Taking gesso, a substance made of rabbit-skin glue and chalking that artists have been using for 300 years, Kniss filled in the patches of missing paint with multiple thin layers. Then he painted the missing parts of the picture on the gesso, studiously imitating Clark's style. He then painted cracks in the patches to match cracks in the old paint.
Finally, he covered the work with two layers of non-yellowing varnish.
Nothing Kniss said totally prepared me for the complete transformation of my painting. The sea I was familiar with had been black and flat. Now it climbed and bucked and pulled in lush greens and browns. The sky, once dirty ochre, now showed the purity of the first rays of sun to penetrate a storm. To counter a slight queasiness caused by the scudding clouds and the lumbering sea, my eyes sought the relative stability of the ship, where a previously unrevealed top-hatted captain and crew now strode the decks.
My pleasure in possessing a fine painting, somehow all the finer for having saved it from the ashcan, was surpassed by the discovery that the painting's original owner had been a genuine swashbuckling hero who had been a central character in an adventure worthy of Robert Louis Stevenson.
The adventure started in the Scottish highlands, according to copies of highly detailed letters my Scottish relations wrote to their families after coming to America. The McKechnies of Argyle were farmers rich only in the size of their families. Because the land was poor, the younger sons, among them my great-uncle Archibald McKechnie, went to sea.
While still a young man McKechnie was captured by pirates and held prisoner for a year. This was the turn of the 19th century, when the slave trade raged and many shipping companies grew rich transporting West Indian coffee and sugar. It was not unusual to have blacks among the crews, remembering Queequeg, Herman Melville's symbol of Universal Man in his novel "Moby Dick." One black ship hand from the pirate's crew helped McKechnie escape. The two later returned to dig up enough booty to eventually purchase several ships.
McKechnie joined the race for the New World wealth. Believing that the West Indian trade was saturated, he went after guano, a combination of bird and bat dung found on the Galapagos Islands, which brought high prices in England as a fertilizer. With each trip to the Galapagos he had to sail twice around treacherous Cape Horn.
As he grew rich Captain McKechnie helped blacks when he could, the letters disclosed. He also remembered his less fortunate relatives and gave them free passage on the Alan Kerr, the ship in the painting, when the Illinois farmland went cheaply under the Land Grant Act. One letter praised his skill and courage as a captain plus the quality of the cognac and port he served at sea.
"Guess what, Mother," I said during one Sunday telephone conversation. "Not all of Daddy's relatives were farmers. The sea capatain wasn't a pirate. He owned the ship and got rich in the guano--you know what it is--trade."
I went from one state of euphoria to another. As I amassed bits of information on the artist, William Clark, I learned to recognize my racing pulse and sweating palms as symptoms of what serious art collecters call The Thrill of the Chase.
"He was a major minor 19th-century marine artist. Scotland's best," I told my mother in another gloat-tinged telephone call. "His paintings hang in several museums in England and 10 years ago, already, his work was bringing good prices at auctions in London and Glasgow."
For a while I rode a high tide of what the psychiatrist Carl Jung called "synchronicity," simply explained as a desirable state in which the present relates to the past. For example, a writer colleague and I discovered we had a loose connection to the Kerr family, the name on the ship. She knew the family as a girl in Glasgow and had been taught to avoid them because their fortune had been made in the evil slave trade. Through the letters I learned Captain McKechnie had disinherited his only daughter for marrying a member of the same family.
I also began to wonder if there was a reason why I gave our oldest son McKechnie as a middle name instead of McGeachie, the version of my maiden name used by my forebears since coming here. I even toyed with the notion that a subconcious sense of ethnic survival prevented me from giving the painting the toss in the first place.
Now, as the painting hangs regally over the sideboard, its rich colors casting a warm luminence around the dining room, I'm pleased to report my racing pulse and sweaty palms have disappeared. I'm no longer obsessed.
But I know it's only temporary. I am saving money for a trip to Scotland soon, and I plan to return to Illinois this summer to have another look around my mother's attic.