Historic 19th-century paintings by a Bourne resident and artist, Charles Sidney Raleigh, have been renovated and returned to their home at the Jonathan Bourne Historical Center in time for the Historical Society’s 100th anniversary.
The society used a $54,040 funding grant from the Community Preservation Fund to restore a collection of 15 pieces of artwork, including the two massive oil paintings, “The Wreck” and “Escape of the Frigate USS Constitution 1812,” which were returned to their place in the center on Keene Street in July.
Cape Cod Picture Framing & Restoration in Dennis has refurbished several pieces for the society, most recently the two Raleigh maritime paintings, executing a complex process of relining the canvases, cleaning paint, removing and reapplying varnish layers, and repainting when necessary. They say the paintings will be preserved and protected for the next 100 years—a symbolic landmark as it comes during the centennial year for the society.
“The Wreck,” a 54-inch-tall-by-87-inch-wide work painted in 1898, depicts a shipwreck with a breeches buoy rescue in progress. (A breeches buoy is a rope-based rescue device used to extract people from wrecked vessels.) It is from Mr. Raleigh’s darker period in the latter half of his life. “Escape of the Frigate USS Constitution 1812” sits on the wall next to “The Wreck” and is just as impressive in size but different in tone.
This painting shows a dramatic portrait of the USS Constitution, the ship nicknamed “Old Ironsides” for its defeat of five British ships in the War of 1812. The ship in the foreground shows off Mr. Raleigh’s command of depicting detailed maritime rigging. In the background, viewers can see the five British ships that fell to the Constitution.
Mr. Raleigh spent decades as a merchant seaman before settling in Bourne in 1881 where he established himself as an ornamental painter decorating carriages and houses. He was best known, however, for his maritime paintings, particularly his portraits of ships. The artist was seen as the “common-man painter,” as he was entirely self-taught.
The Bourne Historical Society holds five of Mr. Raleigh’s more than 1,000 paintings. These include the two newly restored maritime scenes; two primitives, “Portrait of Grover Cleveland” and “The Law of Nature”; and an additional maritime painting, “Bark Western Belle.” Mr. Raleigh also designed the town seal that Bourne still uses today.
The artist gifted the two massive oil paintings to the town around 1920.
“These don’t belong to us; they belong to the Town of Bourne,” historical society member Mary E. Sicchio said. This obligation to protect the people’s property is what motivated the restoration effort, she added.
To begin the preservation process, five employees from Cape Cod Picture Framing & Restoration came to the center to remove the 200-pound paintings from their 8-foot-tall mantles. The artwork was then taken to a warehouse where proprietor and restoration specialist Ron Lindholm began to “reline” the canvases.
Older paintings have a “gesso layer” just under the paint, a technique similar to how people use primer on their walls today, Mr. Lindholm explained. In the era Mr. Raleigh painted in, artists used gesso made from gypsum powder or rabbit skin glue, which cracks with age. Those cracks can disrupt the paint and be seen on the surface of the artwork.
To prevent cracking, Mr. Lindholm relined the paintings. This involves using a hand-built machine to attach a new canvas backing to the paint, which consolidates the painting and the gesso layer to make it stronger and last longer.
The process of restoring “The Wreck” and “Escape of the Frigate USS Constitution 1812” also involved cleaning the paint, removing a varnish that had turned yellow and applying a new ultraviolet sheltering layer, detaching patches that were poorly placed during an earlier restoration effort, and “inpainting,” or touching up missing parts of the image.
Mr. Lindholm said it took his whole team of experts at Cape Cod Picture Framing & Restoration a year to complete the two paintings.
“It is a business in which you have to handle things very carefully,” he said.
Now that the artwork is back in its home at the historic center, the Bourne Historical Society hopes town residents and visitors come to see the work and learn more about Mr. Raleigh and Bourne’s past.
Mavis L. Robinson, historical society public relations director, said the restoration project “perfectly encapsulated” the organization’s purpose.
“Our mission is to preserve, protect, promote and present the history of the town of Bourne,” she said. “People know us better for Strawberry Festival and Pirate Fest—all the fun things. But ‘preserve and protect’ is listed in the mission because it’s most important, and these paintings have been preserved and protected for the next 100 years.”
The society is hosting a roundtable lecture on Thursday, October 14, at 7 PM at the center on Keene Street to celebrate the return of Mr. Raleigh’s artwork. Michael Dyer, the curator of maritime history at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, will give a presentation on the artist and Mr. Lindholm and fine arts restorer and conservator at Cape Cod Framing & Restoration, Tracy Nee, will discuss the restoration.
The program is free, but donations will be accepted.