The merchant and philanthropist Johns Hopkins was a Quaker, but he was no fan of plain living. Visitors stepping from carriages into the entry hall of his Italianate summer home off Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore were greeted with the sight of a majestic stair foyer lighted by ruby-red glass windows, as well as a large mural of the Bay of Naples rendered by an artist or artists whose names have been lost to history.
This scene of the city of Naples, its bay and Mount Vesuvius in the background, painted about 1851 on a north-facing wall, has somehow survived decades of changing tastes, settlement cracks and generations of perhaps overly zealous house painters who covered it over.
Evidence that the mural still existed behind coats of paint surfaced about 25 years ago when Civic Works, a Baltimore nonprofit, moved into the mansion. Fine-art conservationists are now coaxing this faded, forgotten treasure, all 15 by 25 feet of it, out of the shadows of time.
The Clifton Mansion, whose tower pops out from trees atop a small rise in Northeast Baltimore, emerged renewed after $7 million refurbishment several years ago. Cleared out were office partitions, fluorescent lighting and the rusted plumbing from its decades as a clubhouse for an adjoining golf course. It got a new roof, geothermal heat pumps and air conditioning.
As the venerable mansion stepped out from years of deferred maintenance, it became clear that this was no ordinary retreat to escape the city’s heat. The mansion revealed itself as one of the grandest 19th-century villas in the country. Hopkins hired plaster artists, painters and artisans to embellish his fancy chambers in vivid design and color schemes.
The Friends of Clifton, a private group of benefactors, have underwritten the cost — in the neighborhood of $1 million — of the current project to conserve the mural. The project is dedicated to the memory of longtime city parks board member Samuel Hopkins, a descendant of Johns Hopkins and an early advocate for the preservation of the mansion.
“I feel as if [Johns] Hopkins brought a bit of Southern Italy to his front door,” said Gillian Quinn, the paint conservator on duty at the mansion. “There’s a specific red color in the walls, a vermilion, perhaps a cinnabar. Clifton was clearly decorated by very experienced artisans.”
Quinn, who is a native of Montrose, Scotland, spent years in the conservation studio of the Walters Art Museum. She earlier worked for the Scottish National Trust and tended to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh and homes designed by architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
She describes her current work as an exercise in paint conservation.
“It would look ridiculous if we made it look brand-spanking-new,” she said. “We are making what remains on the wall understandable and enjoyable to viewers today. We are making it so you can appreciate its splendor, but we are not adding anything to it.
“The result is going to be age-appropriate,” Quinn said. “It will look like an uncovered jewel from the past.”
Since beginning work in April, she has discovered figures of a woman carrying water (or is it wine?) in an urn and a village scene in the foreground.
She temporarily suspended her work with fine brushes, magnifying glasses and scalpels in the summer when a new plaster ceiling crafted by Haynes and Howe was installed. Ruby-red glass panels, now on their way from Germany, will be painted and then fired in a kiln by Pittsburgh glass artisans, to once again fill the tower’s windows. A Victorian-era chandelier is arriving from an Atlanta auction house and a carpet is being made for the walnut staircase.
Over the summer, Quinn spent time in Naples and studied paintings of its bay and villages.
“Artists liked painting the scene. It became a very popular subject. But this is original composition. It is not a copy,” she said of the Clifton mural.
Quinn and her colleagues surmise that the artist-painter(s) at Clifton came to the U.S. from Italy as the U.S. Capitol was being expanded in the middle of the 19th century. Many of these painters found work in other public buildings and Roman Catholic churches. There’s evidence, although sketchy, of an artist’s name on a corner of the wall painting.
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“If we can get the signature, it will be exciting,” she said.