Master painter Peter Tysver restores a 1600s religious icon
From an original Winslow Homer watercolor to a novice oil portrait, Oliver Brothers treats each work with an expert hand.
Inside an obscure industrial building on Beverly’s Elliot Street, a small group of artists bands together in a manner reminiscent of Europe’s ateliers. Oliver Brothers Fine Art Restoration and Conservation, the country’s first and longest operating company of its kind, resurrects Old Masters and frames fresh talent.
The gesso-scented studio bears a history as rich and layered as many of its restored paintings. In 1850, founder James Oliver, a trained art restorer from Scotland, set up shop in New York City with his son, George, and accommodated requests made by the likes of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution.
Sometime after the Civil War, George relocated to Boston and established Oliver Brothers (then known as “James Oliver’s Sons”) as the leading art restoration firm in the Northeast.
In turn, George’s own two sons, Fred and George Taylor, were trained in the art and science of painting restoration. Taylor proved a brilliant innovator. His primary contribution to the field was the invention of the first vacuum table for re-lining paintings—a device still used in the industry worldwide.
George Taylor’s son, Emerson, was yet another generation to join the firm. Emerson and his uncle Fred worked together until Emerson’s untimely death in 1960. Fred then sold the business in 1961 to Carroll Wales and Constantine Tsaousis, but was sure to pass on Oliver Brothers’ longperfected techniques before departing the company. In 1968, Wales and Tsaousis found a young art school graduate named Peter Tysver and took him on as an apprentice. When Tsaousis died in 1986, Wales retired and Tysver took over the business. He remains at the helm today.
Since 1910, Oliver Brothers operated out of Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood until expanding and relocating to the North Shore in 2008. (It was one of the first tenants in the Fenway Studios—the only purpose-built art studio left in the city.) Today, all of the restoration and framing work happens in Beverly, while the Boston office serves as a pick-up and drop-off site.
In 1990, following the fashion of the Old Masters, Tysver discovered and trained Greg Bishop. After earning a bachelor of arts degree in visual arts and completing a two-year apprenticeship with Tysver, Bishop became an accomplished painting restorer. “There are two ways to enter the field of art restoration,” says Bishop. “You can come up under somebody’s wing as an apprentice or get a masters degree.”
Nowadays, Oliver Brothers comprises a solid eight-member staff. They restore works on paper, icons, murals, sculptures, gilded objects, and antique and contemporary picture frames for museums, art dealers and galleries, private collectors, corporate headquarters, and retail businesses alike. Ultimately, they serve two types of clients—those who collect high-end works of art as an investment and people who prize a piece for personal reasons. “Both are equally valuable,” says Bishop. “That’s the difference between the museum world and the private restoration world. We serve clients that the museum world wouldn’t go near.”
Bishop, who now functions as business manager and oversees production, says, “We are materials experts and Peter is our secret weapon—he’s looked at thousands of paintings in his lifetime, so he has a visual library in his head. He understands the soft facts—how the brushstroke goes, what the overall impression is—that can only be known by looking at works purposefully and intentionally and recording all that data over decades.” Such breadth and depth of industry expertise is vital for a company known to handle works by Rembrandt, Rousseau, Kokoschka, Goya, Mary Cassatt, Andy Warhol, and Dürer to name a few.
The private restoration world and the museum world differ in a number of ways explains Bishop. In museums, people typically work with pieces that have been very well cared for. Oliver Brothers, on the other hand, sees pieces that are filthy, ripped, and poorly handled. Bishop refers to museum-based restorers as “custodians of artworks, [whereas] we are like the ER of the restoration world.”
Over at Tysver’s “retouch station,” he addresses a Russian icon—a small private object of veneration, which is not a hugely valuable work but adored by the client. There was significant damage—lifting paper, cracks, and paint loss. “In-painting” (versus the colloquial “retouching”) has a precise meaning, explains Tysver. Its mission is to fill in what is missing; it is not a mat ter of repainting. The term resulted from abuses in the 19th century when there weren’t strict regulations on art conservation that honored the original work and did nothing to alter it. “We [want] to preserve the continuity of what the artist originally achieved,” says Tysver.
In an effort to avoid misconstruing an artist’s intent, Oliver Brothers follows the code of ethics defined by the American Institute for Conservation (AIC). “We extrapolate from what is there and build it out,” says Bishop. But, he explains, there are strict conservationists who would never in-paint Jesus’ face; they would leave the damage. That is the distinction between restoration and conservation, though they are often used interchangeably. “It’s very subjective,” Bishop says. “There are different viewpoints.”
“The museum world tends to view artworks as archeology,” he notes, “while private practices see them more as visual works of art.” And there’s a spectrum of hybrid approaches. “When an issue like that comes up,” adds Tysver, “we consult with the client, follow our own code of ethics and the AIC code, and work with the customer to do it in a way that will make them happy because they are paying us to do the work.”
At the other end of the studio, Pete Brefini restores a screen painting of a battle scene dating back to the 1700s. Likely once a very large painting that hung in a castle or estate, it has been cut into pieces and severely compromised— the image is barely decipherable. After three months, Brefini begins work on the fourth of se ven panels. “The speed of restoration can be slow or even slower,” says Mira Bishop, the studio’s expert on new frames. “Be careful of fast restorers.”
Business at Oliver Brothers is going well. On average, 50 to 75 projects are in the works at any give n time, with 300 to 400 items in the shop. Soon an additional 1,000 square feet will accommodate future works. “Our reach is increasingly national,” says Mira. From New York to Georgia to Virginia, clients are requesting their rare services. In fact, a woman from North Carolina recently called to say, “Only you can frame a portrait of my late husband.”
“Part of our job is to be very picky,” says Mira, who applies her background in architecture to framing. “We take framing very seriously. We use techniques…to preserve art to last for a long time.” She points to a recently completed job that sits ready for pickup. It is a da Vinci-signed work. While framing it they discovered they could show one thirty second of an inch more, so they started over. “With original artwork,” says Mira, “it is important to show as much as possible. If we can show one hair more, we will show one hair more.”
Using conservation-grade glass to protect paintings from UV rays and dust particles, and employing preservation techniques like water vapor and Coroplast barriers—Oliver Brothers frames are constructed with longevity always in mind. “What makes framing an art is knowing which boards to use,” says Mira. “We use museum boards, which are not just acid-free, but lignin-free—that is what is most important. No adhesives touch the art; the art is completely intact.”
Also vital to the success of a frame are its aesthetic qualities. “I travel and cherry-pick the best work because some [frame makers] are really fantastic at making Dutch frames and some are really great at making Italian frames, others [excel] at Arts and Crafts, Modernist, or Hudson River School frames. There is no such thing as one frame maker that fits the bill [for all works].”
To unearth the best in the industry, Mira attends regional and national shows. Every year she goes to Las Vegas for the largest art and frame expo in the world and takes classes taught by people from national galleries who test materials and come up with different framing solutions. It is how she “keeps up with the latest and greatest” techniques. Additionally, she networks online with international art restoration framing experts. “It’s a big part of my job to come up with the right methodology because you never frame the same thing twice. It’s always something new, something different, something more challenging.”
At yet another workstation, Adeline Meyers, the company’s frame/surfaces restorer, tends to a large, unusually decorated frame, which features compo and gesso with oil gilding and water gilding. She surmises it is likely from Eastern Europe, as it has influences of the French frame style. “It is quite unique,” she notes.
Describing her methodical work, Meyers says, “It’s interesting because the field hasn’t changed in hundreds of years—the conservation field has, but gilding hasn’t. When you are gilding, you are using the same recipes people have used for hundreds of years, back to the Renaissance, back to the Egyptians, so your hands are really in history.” It seems all of Oliver Brothers’ staff agrees: Apprenticeships are the best means by which to learn the art and science of restoration work. “You can’t really learn it from books,” says Meyers. “It’s hand skills.”
“It’s not theory,” concurs Greg. “You learn it in the studio.” He explains, “There are two veins in the field—the artistic, hands-on vein and the more theoretical, research vein. We are a little more biased towards hands-on [work]. Most of us are artists.”
“But,” adds Meyers, “they need each other. We need those scientists to teach us better ways to do things, and the scientists need us to do the projects. It’s [about] balance.” It’s also about quality, accuracy, and tradition—the Oliver Brothers’ bedrock. oliverbrothersonline.com