Published July 5, 2016
Inside the UB Poetry Collection sit two of the greatest portraits ever painted of the iconic poet Dylan Thomas.
The portraits have resided at the university for 60 years, rounding out arguably the world’s finest collection of early Thomas manuscripts.
But while many of Thomas’ poems have stood the test of time, the portraits did not. The paintings grew unstable, with layers of paint losing their adhesion to the canvas, causing significant flaking.
To restore the historic paintings, the University Libraries embarked on a semester-long project with support from James Hamm, professor in the Art Conservation Department at SUNY Buffalo State.
“In addition to loaning a large selection of our Dylan Thomas manuscripts to joint exhibitions in Wales, we wanted to honor the centennial celebration of his birth by restoring his portraits,” says James Maynard, associate curator of the Poetry Collection.
“We have a wonderful working relationship with James Hamm and the Buffalo State Art Conservation Department, and knew they would do a tremendous job.”
Under the supervision of Hamm, graduate fellow Lisa Ackerman carried out the restoration of the paintings.
The labor-intensive process involved vacuuming layers of dust from both paintings to clean the surface, and using adhesives and heat to reapply peeled paint to the surface, piece by piece. Remaining cracks in the paint were filled with pigmented wax resins, mixed to match the color of the original. The frames also were reinforced and re-laminated.
“As a Buffalo native, it was a special treat to be able to work on these two paintings from UB,” says Ackerman, who is training to become a conservation professional.
“Although one was in very good condition, the other presented challenges that, at first, seemed insurmountable, but with the guidance of my professor, James Hamm, I learned about proven conservation materials and methods that made it possible to complete a successful treatment that I am especially proud of.”
The portraits, acquired in 1956 by Charles Abbott, the Poetry Collection’s founder, were created by the late Welsh artist Gordan Stuart, who completed the works a month before Thomas died.
A photo of the portraits was all the persuasion Abbott needed to make the purchase. The paintings expanded the Thomas collection, which began at UB in 1941 with the purchase of five notebooks filled during the poet’s teenage years, the earliest work of Thomas known to exist.
Unlike many artists who gain prominence after their death, Thomas had achieved notoriety by the 1930s, amassing three national reading tours before he died in 1953 at the age of 39.
His famous and influential works include the poems “Fern Hill” and “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” the short story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and his “play for voices,” “Under Milk Wood.”
Stuart produced only three other portraits of Thomas, which reside at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the National Portrait Gallery in London and in the artist’s personal collection.
To learn more about the Thomas collection, visit the Poetry Collection online.