Henry Gassaway Davis was an important figure for the history of West Virginia as both a successful businessman and politician. The city of Elkins and Charleston, West Virginia have identical equestrian outdoor bronze statues to commemorate Henry Gassaway Davis.
The sculpture was created by sculptor Louis Saint Lanne and cast by the American Art Foundry in New York in the early part of the 20th century. Over the years, the outdoor bronze sculpture aged. For the sculpture in Charleston, the bronze developed a disfiguring corrosion layer as seen by the uneven bright green and black areas and drip marks. The granite base on the sculpture also suffered copper corrosion staining due to runoff from the sculpture. The remaining mortar joins, if present at all, were failing. It also appeared that a weatherproof coating was applied to the base at some point, and it aged unevenly on the surface creating darker areas on the stone.
It was clear to the City of Charleston that for their statue of Davis, restoration of the outdoor bronze was critically needed. Under the current guidance of Jeff Pierson, Director of the Office of Public Art in Charleston, McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory was tasked with revitalizing the sculpture of the important local figure which is located downtown in Davis Park.
Henry Gassaway Davis was born in Maryland in 1823. In 1843, he became employed as a brakeman and conductor by the Baltimore Ohio Railroad Company. Years later, Davis became involved in the banking businesses and coaling mining in West Virginia, then in the lumber business and constructing railroads. By 1865, Davis had become an important business figure and was elected to the house of delegates in West Virginia. He continued his political career by being elected to the State senate and eventually United States Senate serving from 1871 to 1883. He also ran unsuccessfully for Vice President in 1904. Davis settled in Elkins, West Virginia, continuing his ventures in banking, railroads, and mining. He also helped to establish Davis & Elkins College. Upon his death in 1916 at the age of 92, Davis was buried in the Maplewood Cemetery in Elkins.
For over a century, the Davis sculpture in Charleston was exposed to the elements, vandalism, and time. Eventually the statue took on an altered appearance. It should be noted that often the public grows accustomed to the green color found on uncoated outdoor bronzes. While there are many colors of patinas, bright green and black uneven areas, and especially drip marks, are considered disfiguring to the metal substrate. These features can indicate active corrosion that can etch and wear away the bronze overtime, if it has not done so already. In addition for an early 20th century bronze, the appearance is a departure from the original patina applied by the patineur to color the bronze at the time of fabrication.
With this in mind, Christina L. Simms, Conservator of Objects and Sculpture, and Curtis McCartney, Conservation Assistant, aimed to perform a full restoration of the outdoor bronze. Since close access was required for the conservation treatment of the outdoor bronze, temporary scaffolding and containment was installed around the sculpture.
Once it was in place, McCartney employed a water-borne media blasting, the JOS system, to reduce many decades of corrosion on the bronze. This process is far more gentle and controllable than traditional blasting methods, and therefore, it has less of an adverse impact on the artwork. The base was also treated, and much of the dirt as well as the black and green staining was significantly reduced. Trace remnants of the undesirable coating remained as it had soaked into the surface of the stone. Overall the appearance of the metal and stone was markedly improved.
Conservator Christina L. Simms then began the repatination process. A “statuary brown” color would have been typical for the time period of the Davis sculpture. Simms worked carefully using a chemical patination to restore the outdoor bronze back to a historically accurate brown color. Weep-holes or drainage holes were installed in areas where water was collecting inside of the bronze sculpture. Water settling inside of the bronze can cause corrosion and physical damage if it freezes in the winter.
The next step involves protecting the new patina and bronze by applying a protective coating. Simms applied a hot wax coating, gradually covering the large equestrian outdoor bronze. The wax saturated the bronze as well as any trace of remaining corrosion, halting its return. While this coating needs to be periodically maintained in the following years, overall it protects the bronze from the elements, and copper corrosion runoff should no longer impact the stone. The hot waxing process as well as the conservation of the outdoor bronze was documented by Jeff Pierson.
As a final step for the restoration of the outdoor bronze sculpture, the joins on the base were repointed using a conservation grade mortar. To migitate the weeping joins on the bottom of the base, small drain holes were incorporated. Once the base has dried from the treatment, it was recommended to apply a sacrificial coating to mitigate potential damage if the base is tagged or vandalized in the future.
After the conservation treatment of the outdoor bronze sculpture of Henry Gassaway Davis, the scaffolding was removed. The aesthetic of the both the bronze figure and the stone was significantly improved. The bronze was now an overall brown color with a even sheen created by the protective coating. The staining on the stone was also greatly reduced, and the gaps of missing mortar were now filled with new material.
McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory is greatly humbled by the support and positive feedback from the people of Charleston, West Virginia for the restoration of the outdoor bronze of Henry Gassaway Davis. A special thanks to Jeff Pierson of the Office of Public Art and the local media such outlets such as WCHS, and the Charleston-Gazette Mail for sharing information about the conservation treatment of the Henry Gassaway Davis Sculpture.