Conservation and recreation of canvas ceiling panels

Three of the formal reception rooms of the Nickerson House feature ceilings composed of painted canvas panels: the Library; the Front Parlor; and the Drawing Room. The panels, which are original to the house, are actually hand-painted canvases, exquisitely stenciled and stretched across wooden strainers.

The ceiling panels were among the first elements of the house to be addressed in the restoration. Before any other work began within the historic rooms of the residence, the ceiling panels in each room needed to be carefully mapped, catalogued, and removed. In 2004, Parma Conservation, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in the conservation of paintings, frescoes, and murals, was engaged to develop a conservation plan to remove and treat the historic ceiling panels of the Nickerson House.

The coffered ceiling of the Front Parlor is composed of 32 canvas panels held within a wooden frame.

The panels are stenciled to resemble delicately patterned fabric. This photograph shows one of the Front Parlor ceiling panels prior to conservation.

The Drawing Room ceiling features 127 canvas panels. Like those in the Front Parlor, the ceiling panels in the Drawing Room are stenciled to resemble a patterned fabric.

This photograph shows one of the panels from the Drawing Room ceiling prior to conservation. Overall, the panels in both rooms had survived in excellent condition. A century’s worth of silt and airborne grime had accumulated over the surfaces of the panels. However, the paint layer beneath, while dark and dirty, had in most cases remained intact. The canvases were still in tension and the stretchers were in excellent condition.

A number of the original panels were in poor condition. In both rooms water infiltration had caused the paint of certain panels to tent, curl, and lift up along the lines of craquelure.

The paint was extremely brittle with deeply pronounced traction cracking.

In several cases water damage had decimated the surface of the panels causing severe paint loss.

The ceiling panels were removed from the ceiling and carefully packed for transport to the Parma Conservation laboratory. To mitigate the risk of further paint loss in the more fragile of the panels, it was important to stabilize them before removing them for treatment. Wet-strength Japanese tissue and Beva 371 were used to face the surface of panels that would have been too delicate to move to the Parma Conservation laboratory.

At the laboratory, the panels with the most severely weakened paint layers required consolidation to re-adhere the damaged layers. Consolidation is a conservation treatment whereby flaking, tented, or insecure paint layers are re-adhered to the substrate canvas. The goal of the consolidation treatment was to save every extant chip of paint in each of the panels.