GEORGE AND SARAH ANN are back from their makeover and it’s been quite a transformation. Robin Taylor has cleaned them, removing as much of the old discoloured varnish as he could without damaging the paintwork. He’s touched up the blemishes (the ‘bullet-wound’ on George’s forehead has healed up nicely) and finally he applied a resin varnish which has restored the richness and depth of the colour.
I’m impressed by this detail of embroidery on the sofa arm in the portrait of Sarah. These are painted photographs so I’m not sure whether this has been meticulously painted or whether it is the original photograph showing through a transparent glaze of oil paint.
Although today we’d see basing a portrait so directly on a photograph as ‘cheating’ at the time this was a way of embracing a new technology. Robin, who was as surprised as we were by how well these battered old paintings have responded to restoration, describes the painting as a superior job.
The paintings are on card with a sheet of wood backing them. I was rather hoping that Robin would find an old document stuffed in the back of the painting. He tells me that he occasionally finds a page from a newspaper added as packing behind a painting in a frame.
The printed label on the back of each portrait states that Geo. Wilkinson & Son of 98 Devonshire Street, Sheffield (two doors down from Westfield Terrace) offer the following services:
Oil Paintings, carefully cleaned, re-lined and restored
Water Colour, and other drawings cleaned and mounted
Engravings, cleaned – mildew and damp stain effectively removed
The Bride in Black
I’m sorry that photographer and picture restorer George Cecil Wilkinson and his oil painter colleague J H Ainley aren’t still around to see how well these portraits are looking a century and a quarter after they produced them.
My mum tells me that George Wilkinson married a cousin of her dad’s and I believe that Ainley too was either a friend or in-law. They were to play a part – a controversial part – in the story of my family at a later date.
I was wondering why Sarah Ann should be wearing black. Had she recently lost a member of her family and gone into mourning. Apparently not; this was before a white wedding became the norm and black was often worn by brides. George and Sarah were married in the mid 1870s but, if they were photographed at the time, it seems that the paintings were produced some years later as the Geo. Wilkinson label reads ‘established 1879’.
I’m taking these two portraits as a starting point, a re-starting point, for my family tree research and I’m going to put together a little biography of George, a Sheffield spring-knife maker, and his wife Sarah Ann who started her working life as a home help aged 11. Sarah, I feel is a key characters in the story of that branch of the family. She was born when the industrial revolution was still at its height in the city and she lived long enough to get caught up in the Sheffield Blitz.
Song of the Slave
She reminds me in this portrait of one of the young women who Mrs Hudson ushers into the consulting room at 221b Baker Street at the start of a baffling case for Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. But this time it’s up to me to observe the details and to attempt to piece to together something of the story of her life.
Is there some significance in the way she is holding her pocket watch?
Sarah’s fingers, my mum tells me, were as chubby as shown as a result of all her domestic duties but she was taught to play the piano by one of the families she worked for. One of the pieces that she learnt was The Song of the Slave. We still have the sheet music. This brings home the historical context; born on Boxing Day 1850, Sarah was learning to play the piano in the days immediately before the American Civil War and the subsequent emancipation of the American slaves.
George doesn’t give much away in his sober Sunday best suit but I’m looking forward to hearing what my costume expert friends can tell me about him.
The candid camera photograph (which I’ve already featured in this diary) of George that is son took around 1900 is more revealing of his background and domestic circumstances.
Link: Robin Taylor Fine Arts