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oxford Hopes to restore artwork for Harrybrooke Park

August 4, 2018

OXFORD — Frank and Elizabeth Harden spent their lives building an art collection of pieces that spoke to them — a mix of originals and master copies from American and European artists.

The 200 or so paintings, etchings and drawings are yellowed from the resin varnish Frank Harden added, as well as darkened with cigarette smoke and soot from a malfunctioning furnace.

But Harrybrook Park officials are working to restore the artwork so visitors at the Harden House Museum at the park can see the pieces how the couple did. Frank Harden, owner of Acheson Harden Handkerchief Factory, died in 1965, leaving the couple’s 48-acre property and weekend home to New Milford’s residents.

“I’m really excited that one piece of Harrybrooke that people haven’t been exposed to is being restored and now people are being introduced to the Hardens and their story through the home,” said Bill Buckbee, the museum and park’s executive director.

Buckbee wanted to restore the paintings when he became executive director three years ago, but had to repair the building and park first.

“We couldn’t move on to the paintings until we were structurally ready,” he said.

So far, two James Gale Tyler paintings of schooners have been restored thanks to a $1,500 grant from the New Milford Commission on the Arts. Tyler was a well-known marine painter from New York in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The work was completed by Yost Conservation in Oxford. The company was started by Tom Yost in 1989 and consolidated into one operation in Oxford in 1999. Yost and his staff of six conserve and restore 80 to 100 paintings each month, helping out historical societies and small museums, such as Harrybrooke, while also working for private collectors and galleries.

Yost said the two Tyler pieces were among the darkest he’s worked on. He said the varnish was applied thickly and so the painting was very yellow under the other pollutants.

“The painting was so dark, you could barely see it all,” Yost said. “They don’t get much darker than that.”

Yost said oil paint hardens as it ages, making it resilient to cleaning agents, allowing Yost and his staff to use a water-based cleaner to remove the pollutants and then a solvent to remove the varnish, revealing the original colors. The painting is then touched up and a synthetic varnish was added. The edges of the painting and the frame were also repaired.

It took about three weeks to a month to complete.

”It’s little bits of time over a long period of time,” Yost said.

Yost is working with Buckbee to conserve three more paintings and hopes to do more.

Buckbee has applied for other grants and is also asking anyone interested in preserving the art to send donations to the park. He said it’s hard to determine the total cost to restore the pieces because each one requires different restoration work but estimates it will be about $125,000 to restore the entire collection. He’s currently having three paintings restored with an $8,000 grant.

“It’s very eclectic,” he said of the collection, adding they purchased what they liked and didn’t focus on particular artists. There are some repeats though.

The Hardens worked with Alvin Lee, a master copier at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who painted the Hardens’ portraits and did several of their master copies, which are high-quality recreations of masterpieces.

“This is a time from before you could buy a poster,” Buckbee said.

The couple also had three Tyler paintings, none of which are included in any of the artist’s collections. They’ve been authenticated as originals by appraisers and art historians, leaving Buckbee to suspect the Hardens and Tyler knew each other because they traveled in the same circles.

Buckbee said he will always have a connection with the larger Tyler painting because it was the first painting restored. He said it was an emotional experience to see the painting how it looked when Frank Harden first hung it as the focal piece in the living room. All of the paintings are displayed how the Hardens hung them, though Buckbee said he’s hoping to have an art show to bring out other pieces from storage.

People can see the art at the house on weekends and through scheduled private tours.

kkoerting@newstimes.com; 203-731-3345

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