Murals & Altarpieces

Our company was privileged to be selected to clean and restore 6 murals by Charles Allan Winter at Gloucester City Hall in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The murals were originally completed in the 1930s under the management of the Work’s Progress Administration (WPA). The cleaning and conservation work was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and grants from other sources including private contributions. Our company was chosen to do this job because of our previous experience restoring WPA murals, and our prior knowledge of restoring works by Charles Allan Winter. The conservation treatment was completed in 2013.

All images courtesy of John Hurley, photographer

WPA Murals at Gloucester City Hall, Gloucester, MA

by Charles Allan Winter


City Govenment - before


City Govenment - after

City Government was the first of the series of murals by Charles Allan Winter we cleaned. The cleaning methodology used was quite consistent with our original proposal in that all of the murals were covered with a thin layer of urban grime and not coated with a varnish layer. Since acetone is a favored solvent for removing varnish (which is volatile) and unhealthy to breathe for a prolonged period of time, we were fortunate that this and other strong chemicals were not necessary to use. The appropriate solvent for grime is a water-based detergent, however unglamorous it may sound. This solution was applied using non-sterile cotton batting. We discovered that to effectively clean the murals it might take as many as ten applications of the solvent using friction and a scrubbing motion with the cotton. The paint film was not indestructible using this method and careful judgment was required at each stage. Although the commercial cleaning agent we used has a slight perfume additive, we were aware of only one complaint. The used cotton saturated with the water softener additive is not subject to spontaneous combustion, which is rightfully considered when being used in an historic building. At the completion of each day of cleaning the used cotton was put in a plastic bag and deposited in an exterior trashcan.

Two people worked on the scaffolding cleaning the mural while the supervisor (myself) observed the cleaning from the floor as some parts of the work were best observed from a distance and might not be noticed at close range. We briefly experimented with pine oil as a cleaning agent and found that it was too strong. Winton Picture Cleaner was not effective. The most vulnerable areas of this mural were the parts painted to simulate marble. These faux architectural areas were thinly painted to imitate the texture and grain of quarried marble and great care was required to preserve the artist’s intent. The artist applied gold leaf in the background areas behind the women in the center of the mural, which could have been inspired by Renaissance techniques. This was glazed over with a mellowing patina so the brightness of the gold would not be visually out of balance with the rest of the composition. It is in this area that a seam in the canvas was discovered. In-painting could not make the joint completely invisible. The mural was not varnished upon completion so it will be practical and affordable to clean it again in another forty or fifty years.

City Council in Session

by Charles Allan Winter


City Council in Session - before


City Council in Session - after

City Council in Session is naturally lower in tone than the daylight scene on the other side of the corridor. It represents an interior scene where the subjects are illuminated with incandescent electric light bulbs rather than sunlight. Therefore, the artist’s intent was that the mural would be deliberately lower in brilliance and weighted towards warm yellow tones to achieve a light bulb lit interior, absent of the balancing cool tones of natural light. To the untrained eye this is an important consideration, which explains why, cleaning the painting did not result in a more dramatic improvement. The methods used to restore this mural were identical to the methods used above. In the lower central area of the mural, we encountered a fairly large brown area where there existed numerous paint separation cracks that were visually disturbing. However, the paint film was in no structural peril and was securely bonded to the canvas. We corrected the visual effect using a narrow brush and in-painted the spider web like patterns using acrylic paint, which can be removed with acetone. (See detail, page 8) The mural reads well unvarnished.

A curious footnote to the mural is that the artist’s portrait can be found in the upper left corner although it is well hidden. Mr. Carlton Wonson’s stylish white shoes, on the right side of the mural, invoked speculation as well as an extra cleaning. It was necessary to work on some Friday afternoons when City Hall was closed to the public to complete the work.

Civic Virtues

by Charles Allan Winter


Civic Virtues - before


Civic Virtues - after

Civic Virtues was more difficult to clean than City Government and City Council in Session. The paint layer was thicker and had more texture. The murals were painted on two pieces of canvas with the joint overhead and in the middle. In the mural Civic Virtues, the canvas was starting to delaminate from the wall in one area and we bonded the canvas to the support using a heat iron and wax-resin as an adhesive which can be reversed easily. The method we used to clean these murals was entirely consistent with the other two murals we had cleaned previously except they required more time and effort.

The ancient classical references seen in much of the artist’s work in City Hall can be noted in Protection/Welfare where the Greek Goddess Athena serves as City Protector. This was exactly Athena’s role in 4th century Athens where a statue of her by Phidias was installed in the Parthenon. We were recently informed that the identity of the little girl seeking protection under Athena’s shield had recently become known as one of the artist’s many models and that in real life she had recently passed away. The artist has made clever use of the challenging format caused by the arch of the doorway.


by Charles Allan Winter


Poetry - after

The mural Poetry surrounding the door to the City Clerk’s Office is now viewed in its second location having been originally installed in the former Grammar School in 1937 next door to City Hall. The mural was most likely intended to be viewed from a greater distance, possibly at the end of a corridor or a wider hallway, although this is only speculation. The doorway at the bottom of the mural is off center to the picture plane. I believe the mural may have been removed from the wall of the school when the building was converted to serve a different function. At an unspecified date the mural was moved to City Hall. One gathers from the evidence of many existing restored holes and tears that the mural was firmly stuck to the school wall. The mural did not detach easily, and much work was necessary to repair the damage caused by trying to get it free from the former support. Many of those damaged areas could be located from the floor prior to our cleaning and in-painting. They were seen as discolored blotches largely in the face and skin areas of the major figures. These were areas that had holes and tears, which had been previously restored and had discolored with the passage of time.

The texture of the paint in this mural was much rougher, much grainier and more likely to crumble off during cleaning than the other murals. There were many cracks in the paint surface throughout. A probable source of some accelerated deterioration of the paint film was a steam heat radiator located against the left wall just under the mural. The radiator has blasted intensely hot air upwards across the full length of the painted surface for many years. The temperature was so hot that when we first started consolidating the crumbling paint film with a wax adhesive, the adhesive would not cool enough to bond. The heat was too intense on the scaffolding to work for more than a few minutes when the radiator was functioning. When city workers turned off the radiator the problem was immediately solved and the building still seemed warm enough. The wax adhesive could cool and re-bond the paint to the canvas. The radiator should not be turned on again if preserving this mural is a priority.

This mural was much dirtier than all the others. It took more applications of detergent, more vigorous scrubbing and more patience. There had been many previously restored holes which required expert color matching particularly in the face and garment of the non-threatening woman who welcomes the student into the world of poetry, the mental life of the ancients and music. The head of the allegorical figure holding an ancient lyre required in-painting in the forehead. Interestingly, the hair of this figure is bright cadmium red rather than a more natural orange as is found in nature. This might have been an example of the artist’s belief that the color red had a particular correlation to a note in music or emotional expression. I know of no other painting in which the artist used this pigment to paint hair.

During the first stage of treatment of this mural, we painted small pieces of silicon release paper with hot wax adhesive and let it cool to hardness. We then stuck the adhesive applied paper over areas where the paint was crumbling off and pressed a heat spatula over the paper. This caused the adhesive to flow into the cracked and crumbling paint film and caused it to re-bond to the canvas upon cooling. After the paint had been reattached, we cleaned off the excess adhesive with paint thinner. This treatment was very successful, but will quickly be undone if the heat from the radiator below is ever turned on again.

The cleaning technique and materials were exactly the same as used in the other mural. Because of the texture and extra grime the work on this mural was more challenging. The top of this mural was about 2 feet higher than the other murals because of a difference in ceiling height. As with the other murals it remains unvarnished for the same reasons.

Protection of Fisheries

by Charles Allan Winter


Protection of Fisheries - before


Protection of Fisheries - after

The mural Protection of Fisheries is located over the door to the City Council meeting room at Gloucester City Hall. The mural was completed in 1942, the year the artist, Charles Allan Winter died. Some aspects of the crafting of this mural may reflect the artist’s waning powers, however it remains an essential and successful tribute to the Gloucester fishing industry and those who proudly serve and served in it.

The lower portion of the mural depicts a traditional Gloucester fishing schooner in the process of harvesting mackerel from a seine net. On the deck of the schooner to the right, crew members manage a dip net, which will reach into the seine net, heavy with fish, to hoist the mackerel onto the schooner.

Events in the celestial portion of the mural remain less certain. In the upper left part of the sky we may possibly be viewing the drowned crew of a sunken fishing craft, who are now in heaven. Some hold fish in their hands, which symbolize their profession and their Christian faith. The central element in the sky is apparently a figure of Christ standing among crew members in a boat. A crucifix seems to double as a mast and yard arm for the sail. The composition could have been inspired by a passage from Luke 5: 5-7 in the New Testament, and is a reminder of the important role of religion in the lives of many fishermen and their families. The significance of all faces or images in the heavenly areas of this mural remains subject to future interpretation and debate.

From a restoration/technical point of view there is one unresolved question that I have concerning a dark line that runs vertically through the coat of Jesus: This line seems too dark and crude for any modeling shadow in this part of the painting. I have suspected it to be a later attempt to strengthen the figure of Christ, but out of respect for the advice of my staff, and for fear of being accused of hubris; I have left the line as it was found.


by Charles Allan Winter


Education - before


ProtectionEducation - after

The mural, Education by Charles Allan Winter, presently located in the office of the Mayor at Gloucester City Hall, was completed by the artist in 1935 at the age of 66. It was originally installed at Gloucester High School, and was re-mounted in the Mayor’s Office at some unspecified date when the old school building found new life as Grammar School Apartments. About 5 years ago after it had been re-installed in the Mayor’s Office, it was perceived to be mounted too close to the floor and was moved about three feet higher, where it remains today. Originally, the mural was painted on three evenly matched sections of canvas (approximately 45" wide), which run vertically from top to bottom to a height of approximately 10 feet. Each of these 3 sections was mounted on a panel to which the canvases are bonded. During the canvas/panel-bonding phase some slits needed to be cut into the canvases to allow air and adhesive to escape. After the canvas sections were bonded to the panels they were nailed into position one by one, the nails driven directly though the painting into the wall along the edge of the panels and other areas of the picture. It is not known if glue was used during the re-mounting, which would considerably complicate the process if a third move was attempted. Once the three panels were nailed to the wall, the joints were filled and carefully in-painted to conceal the seams. The nails and air/adhesive escape slits were also concealed with gesso fill and in-painting. Unfinished commercial wood molding presently serves as a crude picture frame.

Unlike many WPA murals this particular example was not designed with a doorway running though the bottom of it, possibly lending greater dignity to it as a work of art. Like all the other WPA murals I have worked on it was never varnished as presented. This is one justification for not varnishing the murals after cleaning them. A more serious justification is the serious health and safety risks, which would be faced down the road in 40-50 years, when the murals need cleaning again.

I have asked assistance from the archivist Stephanie Buck at the Cape Ann Museum for locating a picture of the mural sited at its original location. Without this picture I am guessing that the mural Education was flanked by two small over-the-doorway paintings of cherubs holding a shield painted as faux limestone reliefs. These pictures, both initialed by conjoined initials “CAW” currently hang in the lobby at Gloucester City Hall and the shields were re-painted in the early 1950s as “The Mariner’s Medal, City of Gloucester.” While Winter died in 1942, the artists who re-painted the shields initialed them with “EF” and “WH.” One is dated 1952. Originally, the shields may have been decorated with “GHS,” for Gloucester High School.

Our work as restorers has been to remove the grime, which accumulated on the mural since the last time it was moved within the Mayor’s Office at Gloucester City Hall. In so doing we have replaced much of the in-painting which conceals the seams, nail holes, and air/adhesive escape holes which became apparent when we started the job.

In the course of our work we have discovered examples of early medieval Christian art by Italian artists Duccio and Giotto from the 14th, century whose compositions of the Madonna sitting on elaborately designed thrones seem to have influenced Winter. This observation indicates the artist admired the great art historical traditions of Old Europe and may have been more inspired by them than the currents of modern art coming out of Europe before the first World War, which interested many of his artist contemporaries.

Taken as a group, the murals of Charles Allan Winter in Gloucester City Hall must be considered one of the most impressive artistic achievements ever created on Cape Ann, and the mural Education may be Winter’s greatest painting.

Although I feel that we have served well the great artistic legacy of Charles Allan Winter and the Gloucester Committee for the Arts my deepest regret is that we did not discover the photography talents of John Hurley earlier into the job of cleaning the murals. The art of photography has changed much since I started out in business over 35 years ago, and I was unknowingly ill equipped to manage his part of the job on my own.

Fortunately, we were able to hire John to take “after” shots of all the murals, and “before” shots of Education. It is my hope that these excellent images, which I have paid for, can be used for an on- line visual resource center to enhance the study of the work of Charles Allan Winter and his wife Alice Beach Winter.