Lord Camden portrait to be repaired

Camden County Historical Society staff (from left) William Roulett, Jacinda Williams, and executive director Jason Allen pause by Lord Camden's oil painting at the society's Camden office.
Camden County Historical Society staff (from left) William Roulett, Jacinda Williams, and executive director Jason Allen pause by Lord Camden's oil painting at the society's Camden office. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff)
Posted: March 03, 2014

CAMDEN He's frayed, flaking and faded.

Over time, his seven-foot-tall portrait, in a stairwell of the Camden County Historical Society, has aged badly, like the painting in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Lord Camden, who gave the city its name, has a green pallor. His flowing wig, lace cuffs and full-lined robe are dingy. Creases and tears have shown up across the canvas.

But that's about to change.

The Richard C. von Hess Foundation in Philadelphia, which has provided grants to the arts and conservation communities, contributed the $5,000 needed to restore the painting to its original glory.

The British aristocrat and government official was popular in the colonies because of his opposition to his country's 18th-century policies in America.

Camden was later adopted as the name of towns and counties in New Jersey, New York, Maine, South Carolina, North Carolina, Missouri, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas.

"We got a call out of nowhere in December saying that we'd receive $5,000 to restore Lord Camden," said Jason Allen, executive director of the Camden County Historical Society. The grant means the portrait "will probably be restored some time after April."

The tortured history of the painting "is symbolic of what's happened in Camden," Allen said. "So much history of this place has been lost, so many things destroyed."

But not the 1928 portrait of the first earl of Camden, produced by prolific Collingswood artist Raphael Senseman. It was based on a 19th-century engraving of Charles Pratt, lord chancellor of Britain and de facto speaker of the Houses of Lords in England.

The painting hung in Camden City Council chambers for more than 60 years. It was taken down in the 1980s after showing signs of deterioration, then stored in a council anteroom until it was moved to the historical society about a decade ago.

The portrait will need considerable work. Conservators will use solvent to remove the film of dirt and varnish on the paint, experts said. An adhesive will be applied to the back of the canvas, which will be heated to consolidate the flaking paint.

"We've had discussions about where to go to restore the painting," said William Roulett, the historical society's education and interpretation director. But so far, no conservator has been selected.

The restoration grant was proposed after a trustee of the Richard C. von Hess Foundation who lives in Haddonfield read a November story in The Inquirer, said Joseph Stoll, managing director of the Glenmede Trust Co. in Philadelphia, which advises the organization.

The connection between the foundation and the painting seemed appropriate.

The late philanthropist, Richard von Hess, was born in Camden and descended from an early prominent New Jersey Quaker, John Cooper. He was a noted, lifelong collector and connoisseur of art and antiques.

"The trustees meet quarterly to review grant proposals and one of them saw the article and put in a submission before the Nov. 15 deadline," Stoll said. "Timing was everything."

The trustees soon approved the funds and alerted the historical society.

"It's great that the article generated interest and caught the attention of someone who was in a position to help," Roulett said.

The grant gives the community "a chance to hold on to a piece of history before its lost," Allen said.


ecolimore@phillynews.com

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