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Angels Restore Hartford's George Washington Painting

By Susan Campbell

May 04, 2012

School carpenters were awaiting the arrival of the father of our country on Thursday morning at Hartford Public High School, and talk turned to hardware.

After years of collecting donations and calling in favors, alumni alliances and anonymous donors, a historic painting of George Washington had been painstakingly restored, and was set to return to one of the country's oldest high schools to occupy a place of honor in the Lewis Fox Memorial Library Media Center.

The painting originally hung in the New Haven State House, back when the state had two capitals. Though the artist is unknown, the brush strokes are in the style of Gilbert Stuart, one of the country's first portrait painters, whose likeness of Washington graces our $1 bill.

This particular painting came to the old Hartford High in the early 1900s, where it was moved out just in front of the wrecking ball when that gracious old school was razed, and the new high school was built on Forest Street in the 1960s. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art has a replica of the painting, though it's not on display, according to R.J. Luke Williams.

Restoring George has been an all-consuming project of Williams, a retired Hartford Public High teacher, and now the school historian and archivist. He is, by his own admission, a little obsessive, and when he latched onto cleaning up George, there was no letting go. For decades, the portrait hung behind plexiglass in a second-floor stairwell at the Forest Street school, where the morning sunlight dimmed the luster. About six years ago, it was moved to the Mark Twain House & Museum while the 1960s-era high school underwent major renovation, and Williams began talking about restoration.

This tale is lousy with metaphors; once you start looking for them, you can't stop, but here's the main one: Williams and his host of angels are precisely what Hartford needs. During the restoration, promised donations didn't come through, and the holes poked in the canvas looked menacing, but Ulrich Birkmaier, chief conservator at the Wadsworth, was able on his on time to bring the canvas back. When he pulled the plastic from the portrait, it was all there: Washington's luminescent skin, the folds of his (borrowed) robe, the careful stitching of the chair behind him. This jewel of the city's will be preserved because of gadflies and people who won't let things go.

And then: How to secure the 150-pound piece of art onto the high wall? You need scaffolding, long screws, and the ability to think fast. Jeff Elliott, a carpenter with Hartford schools, took the painting down in the first place. He had a work order, he followed it, it was done and he intended to approach this job equally matter-of-factly. "Don't try to make him nervous," said his colleague, John Ouelette.

Later, six men were perched at various levels of the scaffold. They laughed when one of them suggested that their bellies would get in the way and they should be careful.

Of course it worked out. The men heaved and lifted, eased and cajoled the 150-pound painting up the scaffold as they called out advice to one another in English and Spanish. While the painting moved upward, a small group of students who previously had been hunched over computers stood to walk over and watch.

"George Washington," said one. "Cannot tell a lie." That line is based on what was probably an apocryphal story created by an early biographer intent on enshrining Mr. Washington into the national psyche. But no matter. The real stories from the real man are awesome enough, and just like that, the painting was carefully lifted and attached to the wall ("that wall will fall down before the painting does," someone said), to preside over the library. At 1:24 p.m. Thursday, someone said, "Now you can clap," and so we did.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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