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Uncovering the history of a St. Tammany weathervane

Guest post by Celia Arnaud, a senior editor at Chemical & Engineering News.

Before conservation, this St. Tammany weathervane was coated with an unwanted layer of black paint. Credit: Matt Hamilton/Williamstown Art Conservation Center.

Many pieces that started out as functional objects have crossed over into the realm of art. This is especially true for that genre known as folk art. Metal weathervanes are a prime example of such art. Because these pieces actually had a job, they weren’t carefully housed indoors. They were exposed to the elements—and the local gunslingers.

At last week’s Eastern Analytical Symposium, Kate Payne de Chavez, a conservator at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, in Massachusetts, described the steps she took to characterize and repair a St. Tammany weathervane that had seen some tough times.

The St. Tammany motif features an Indian chief holding a bow and arrow and standing on the shaft of another arrow. He’s believed to represent a 17th century chief in the Lenni-Lenape tribe in the Delaware Valley, known alternatively as Tammany, Tamanend, or Tammamend. Because of his role in establishing peace between Native Americans and the English settlers in the Pennsylvania colony, he achieved near-mythic status, and his name was co-opted by various Societies of St. Tammany, the most famous of which grew into the Tammany Hall political machine.

The largest and most famous St. Tammany weathervane—standing more than eight feet tall—is at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. The one that Payne de Chavez repaired is only one-third the size, nearly three feet tall.

When it was brought to Payne de Chavez by a dealer at Antiquarian Equities, the weathervane was covered with black paint. She analyzed several tiny samples from the weathervane and determined the many layers coating the underlying copper sheet metal and wire. The dealer who brought it to Payne de Chavez wanted to remove the modern paint to expose the corrosion, previous repairs, and the historic refinishing layers.

Kate Payne de Chavez carefully removed the black paint from the weathervane. Credit: Hugh Glover/Williamstown Art Conservation Center

Payne de Chavez discovered that the weathervane had undergone three “finishing campaigns.” The finishing campaigns were separated from one another by thin dirt layers. When the object was originally constructed, it was coated with a white ground layer, two oil layers, and gold leaf. Later refinishing campaigns included a yellow paint layer, an off-white paint layer, and the modern black paint.

The dirt layers indicate weathering and are a good clue that the weathervane really dates back to the 19th century. “It’s hard to fake an actual dirt layer, because the particles are very fine,” Payne de Chavez says. “If someone were painting many layers trying to fake aging, they might not think about the dirt layer. It’s just one more indicator that the piece aged naturally.”

Once she figured out that the underlying oil layers all contained drying oils, like linseed oil, she was able to find a solvent mixture that would remove the black overpaint without damaging the other layers. She used an acetone/xylene gel to soften the black paint and then removed it mechanically.
To preserve the weathervane’s complete history, Payne de Chavez left the black paint in two unobtrusive spots. “You can look at the piece and appreciate its history without being distracted by those areas of black paint,” she says.  “I’ve preserved that it existed. If somebody in the future wants to analyze it, they can do additional cross sections. The full history is still present on areas of the object.”

Removing the modern black paint layer revealed the historic finish, earlier repairs, and bullet holes in this St. Tammany weathervane. Credit: Matt Hamilton/Williamstown Art Conservation Center

This weathervane showed another characteristic typical of weathervanes from that era—it’s riddled with bullet holes. Weathervanes mounted on the top of buildings were popular targets for gunmen. “I actually checked the trajectories,” Payne de Chavez says. “I knew they should have fairly steep trajectories with the entry holes lower than the exit holes.” If somebody were trying to fake such injuries, he or she might take aim at the weathervane on ground level—a dead giveaway.

When Payne de Chavez undertook her study back in 2009, there wasn’t much information available about the conservation of these pieces of folk art. “I thought it was important to present this case study,” she says. In September, Jennifer L. Mass and Julie Lindberg published in Antiques and Fine Arts

a study of the finishes of 13 weathervanes. “Hopefully other case studies will emerge, and we’ll have a better understanding and a better body of knowledge about these objects,” Payne de Chavez says.

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