Columbia Libraries Conserves 'Portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby'

October 23, 2015
Portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby Painting Restored Columbia University

Cornelius Johnson, Portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby, oil on panel, 31 x 24 in. At left, the painting before restoration, image courtesy of the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library. Right, post-conservation photograph by Juan Trujillo

Recently, one of the finest British paintings in the University’s art collection was the subject of a year-long conservation project. Portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby was painted in 1626 by Cornelius Johnson, a prolific English-born painter of Dutch heritage who painted numerous portraits of English gentry in the early to mid-17th century. His Kenelm Digby painting was a 1974 bequest to the College of Physicians and Surgeons from the estate of Dr. Jerome P. Webster, professor emeritus of clinical surgery at Columbia University Medical Center.

Over time, the structure of the painting’s wood panels had separated, and paint losses and aging varnish had altered the appearance of the work. With funds donated by Geraldine and Robert J. Dellenback, Webster’s daughter and son-in-law, the Art Properties department hired outside painting specialists. They restructured the panels and restored the frame. Full cleaning and conservation of the painting’s surface revealed a clearer and brighter image than what had been hidden beneath centuries of accumulated grime.

The University’s art collection is managed by Art Properties, based in the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library. The portrait is on display in the Archives & Special Collections Geraldine McAlpin Webster Reading Room at the Health Sciences Library and is available for viewing by appointment.