Throughout this project, we’re featuring the many folks involved in the New Room’s restoration and their roles in the project. Today, we interview Susan L. Buck, an independent conservator and paint analyst, who is consulting on the New Room.
Paint from ca. 1788 porch handrail reused as chinking in Slave Quarters. Clermont Farm, Berryville, Virginia, 1756. Visible light at 100X. Photographed with a Nikon Eclipse 80i epi-fluorescence microscope. Courtesy of Susan Buck.
Susan, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed! First, can you tell us a little about what you are doing in the New Room and what we’re seeing in this colorful image?
Both here at Mount Vernon and at other sites, I take small samples from woodwork and plaster and cast the best ones into small polyester resin cubes. Then, under the microscope, a polished cross-section will show every layer applied over time to the plaster or the wood. (That’s what you see in the image above.) Each layer of dirt that has collected on the surface tells a story about weathering and degradation, and each paint layer has quite distinctive, identifiable characteristics like pigment size and dispersion. These big green uneven particles in the bottom layers are verdigris—they’re very grainy, shardlike, and hard to mix. They produce a grainy uneven paint. You see it in this sample at 200 times magnification and you also see the effect on the walls.
This is used both as a way to discover original color, but also as an archaeological tool. If you have paints from an original element, and you compared them to one you thought was added later, the paint layers should line up in the sequence. That’s what I’m doing here, trying to figure out where we retain original paints, and where we have alterations. It’s a way of documenting change and understanding the evolution of a space based on these tiny samples that give us huge amounts of information.
I know in your career you have looked at many historic houses. What’s your take on the New Room? If the paint analysis is (literally) your microscopic look, what’s your macroscopic look at the room?
It’s really exciting to see my work transformed into an interpretation that shows the subtleties of the palette. The work that was done at Mount Vernon by Matthew Mosca in the early 1980s was groundbreaking. It was so important for the field. He introduced these colors to the country, and people were stunned and shocked. He really changed how people perceived paints and the importance that they play in how a room was used and how people lived in a space. Now we have the opportunity to come back, not just with a better understanding of color use in the eighteenth century, but also with ways to look more directly at composition and how colors changed. We have some better comparisons from other sites that might show similar types of evidence in the same period. It is hugely satisfying to be able to come back and see the more subtle reinterpretation that we’re finding with this palette. You can talk about a specific color, but you can’t fully envision how it’s going to compare to the wallpaper, the woodwork, and the decoration until you see it in place. [The new palette for the room that Susan mentions will be the subject of a future post.]
Cross-section of flocked wallpaper from the Drawing Room at James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange, Virginia. Reflected ultraviolet light (BV-2A filter) at 200X magnification. Photographed with a Nikon Eclipse 80i epi-fluorescence microscope. The technique Susan uses with layers of paint can also be used with wallpaper. Here, the pink oval shapes are wool flocking fibers on the wallpaper, trapped beneath a later architectural paint. Courtesy of Susan Buck.
Tell me a little about your background, your education, and how you came to do what you do.
I was a studio art major in college so I was very used to working with materials. I learned about art conservation in my senior year, but was too daunted to start the organic chemistry that was required. It took me ten years to come around to the idea that this was absolutely what I wanted to do. I had a couple of friends who were conservators who showed me in a very practical way what you do in the profession. I realized that this was where art, science and intellectual problem solving came together. I spent a couple years getting my chemistry background and experience working in conservation labs, which you need before you apply to graduate school. I got into the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, where I concentrated in furniture conservation because I loved the three dimensional puzzle solving as well as the question of how surfaces change over time. That’s where the microscopy came in, the technique we first discussed today.
I went to work for the SPNEA Conservation Center, which is now Historic New England. That was a furniture and architectural conservation center so I got more into applying the techniques that are used for looking at art objects to architectural materials. As I got more into architecture I realized I needed to know more about buildings and their history and construction. There was a PhD program in art conservation research at the University of Delaware so I went back and got my PhD there, using Winterthur’s analytical equipment.
To me, this was the perfect melding of science and deep engagement with actual materials and actual buildings. Now, fortunately, all my work takes place in collaboration with curators and architectural historians who are already asking questions about the buildings. My tools of paint analysis can answer very specific questions about dating, interpretation, palette, and, here, insight into George Washington and how he lived in these spaces. I now have my own lab in Williamsburg and do contract work for all sorts of historic sites. I also work on art objects and furniture. The questions are different, the objects are smaller, the samples are smaller, that’s it.
Thank you, Susan!
Susan Buck examines a hole adjacent to a window in the New Room. Evidence of eighteenth-century putty can tell us whether the hole was used in Washington’s lifetime, and lead us to a estimation of how the original curtains may have been hung.
Interview conducted and edited by Hannah Freece, Outreach Coordinator.