Aiken’s Art Gallery Restored
Watch a time lapse video of the statue of Mary Magadalene, which weighs hundreds of pounds, being moved by an art handling team in the Aiken-Rhett House art gallery.
The Aiken-Rhett fine art collection allows us to document the emergence of the American collecting tradition in the antebellum South. In 1857, the Aikens built a private art gallery to house and display their holdings. It is the only known extant example in the Southeast with its fine art collection largely intact. Historic Charleston Foundation Curator Brandy Culp has worked to plan and implement a reinstallation of the gallery as it appeared in the nineteenth century. While the Foundation maintains an “as found” preservation philosophy for the house museum, the room was partially restored by The Charleston Museum under their ownership, Then, in the 1990s, additional efforts were made by Historic Charleston Foundation, including adding climate control to protect the artwork. It was the decision of the Foundation to complete the restoration that began many years prior in order to present an accurate interpretation of the room.
The first phase of this project happened in 2013 when the Foundation returned the newly conserved painting of Harriet Aiken to its original location in the art gallery. Thanks to the generosity of donor and Aiken-Rhett family descendant Harold J. Bowen Jr., the remaining components of the project commenced in early November 2013. The fine art was deinstalled in order to restore the plaster and walls. Decorative plaster expert David Hueske repaired damaged nineteenth-century plaster details on the elaborate cornice, and then painters returned the wall surfaces to their original 1858 color, based on paint archaeologist Susan Buck’s research. In late December, Culp worked with Andrew Steever of Squarepoint Design and his team of expert art handlers to reinstall the fine art in the gallery per a plan that is keeping with the room’s mid-19th-century appearance.
As demostrated by the Aiken’s original holdings, many collections assembled by local families included eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works, but Charlestonians had a proclivity toward collecting Old Master paintings, many of which were of dubious attribution. In addition to copies of Old Masters, such as the family copy of the Madonna della Seggiola after Raphael, the Aiken collection included works attributed to Michael Angelo, Carol Maratti, David Teniers, and Salvator Rosa as well as art by contemporary artists, such as Hiram Powers and Luther Terry. Although the attribution of many of their Old Master paintings has shifted over time, the assemblage of such works in a private family art gallery emphatically demonstrates that Governor and Mrs. Aiken were on the vanguard of an emerging American tradition.
The final touches in the art gallery were completed in 2014, including the relocation of the sculpture of Mary Magdalene. Italian sculptor Domenico Menconi signed and dated the work in 1858. It is a copy after an original sculpture by Luigi Pampaloni, an Italian artist working in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Aiken’s purchased it in Italy while on their grand tour in 1858, and the “ghost” marks remain on the floor to show its original location. Moving the sculpture proved a sizable task for the art handling team assembled by Andrew Steever from Square Point Design because the piece weighs several hundred pounds. Steever designed and built a special moving cradle with hydraulic lifts for the project.
Culp also worked with Steever to design reader rails—free, low-standing information panels that highlight the collaborative conservation of Harriet Aiken’s portrait—and new stanchions along the room perimeter. In the mid-nineteenth century, only an exclusive few Americans were establishing their own private galleries to display collections amassed with careful deliberation and cultural insight. The reinstallation of the gallery to its nineteenth-century appearance allows the Foundation to better interpret the Aikens as American patrons and to more thoughtfully demonstrate their knowledge and appreciation of the arts as well as express their level of wealth and refinement.