For Shelley Svoboda, (’84,’85), the beginning of a lifelong love started with curiosity.
Born in Montana and reared in Washington, D.C., “I always had a curiosity about how things work,” she said. A graduate of a science and technology high school, her original focus was science. A Presidential scholarship brought her to The W, where she began her studies as a biology major.
“Dr. Bill Parker and Nora Howell were big influences,” she recalled. “Mrs. Howell taught biochemistry, and she gave me the language I use most in my career.”
That career, for the last 15 years, has been at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, where she is senior painting conservator, with responsibilities for all conservation needs for the foundation’s painting collections, as well as materials research and outreach. In addition, she often hosts tours of the lab and provides museum programs.
She credits The W with the marriage of science and art, two loves that intersect in her work. At The W, she continued the path toward a degree in biology, but she also discovered she was interested in art. “I picked it up late,” she recalled, “and I didn’t really see a path forward.” She was able to balance the demands of both her science labs to earn a biology degree (and be named “Biology Student of the Year") and the art requirements to earn a BFA in studio art. Dr. Mary Evelyn Stringer, professor of art, was the catalyst for Svoboda’s next step.
“She opened the window to conservation,” Svoboda said. “This was before the Internet. She pulled open a filing cabinet and suggested graduate school. She was very supportive in my applications.”
Svoboda landed one of 10 spots in the prestigious master’s program at the University of Delaware/Winterthur Museum, where she specialized in the conservation of art and historic artifacts, with a specialty in painting conservation.
“It was a rigorous three-year program that was handson,” she said. “Each year we had a summer project, and in my second year I focused on paintings as a specialty.” That took her to France, where she worked on conserving a decorative room painted by Charles Francois Daubigny, as well as studying other collections across Europe. “It was one of the richest opportunities of my life,” she said. “I sketched and took notes on collections from Vienna to London.”
The following year, Svoboda was a Winterthur graduate fellow at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she was able to treat paintings in a wide range of collections, including European, American, Modern and contemporary art. A highlight was an invited collaboration with Ingrid Alexander, an art historian at the Smithsonian Institution, on the materials and methods of late 19th-century-early 20th-century American painter A.P. Ryder. “I worked with a wide diversity of art history and materials,” she said.
She had been warned throughout her academic journey that getting a job often proved challenging. “Funding for positions is difficult,” she said. “The U.S. doesn’t have the same level of cultural history awareness as Europe.”
But through subsequent post-graduate fellowships that allowed her to continue her work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Svoboda in 1993 became assistant painting conservator there. Additional opportunities followed at The Huntington Library, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and in the private sector.
“But I found my philosophy is aligned with permanent collections that have a ‘less is more approach,’” she said. “The collection at Colonial Williamsburg is perfect for me.” She has been there since 2003.
In her current position, she is collaborating with chemist Dr. Kristin Wustholz of the College of William and Mary.
Using a technique called SERS (Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy), the two are applying chemistry to art. The laser microscopy method allows them to identify the exact materials used in the often faded colors of 18th-and-19thcentury art.
“These colors were typically gleaned from nature,” Svoboda explained. “For example, carmine, a deep red color, came from beetles.” Many artists of the era, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, knew the materials would fade over time, becoming almost ashen. Conservation of faded and overpainted works begins with investigation of materials used in the original paintings, a process that Svoboda says can be challenging.
“SERS is a powerful tool,” she said. “Applied to a single particle, it can allow you to identify color in a precious area of paintings. You can take out a single, nearly invisible pigment and put it through SERS to confirm it’s carmine, for instance. This answers questions in the most precious face areas with virtually no sampling,” she said.
Through the collaboration, the two have contributed to the literature in chemistry journals and have successfully looked at early use of historic colors such as red, indigo and yellow. “Our discoveries have dovetailed with what the artist said,” Svoboda said. “It has been a rich collaboration. It is science in support of cultural heritage.”
One of her most intriguing and challenging projects has a Mississippi history, and is one of only six known paintings by little known artist William Dering of Virginia. Colonial Williamsburg has four of the six. Only recently identified, the painting was determined to be a portrait of Anne Byrd Carter, daughter of William Byrd II and Maria Taylor of Westover, Virginia. Byrd, who lived 1674-1744, is credited with establishing the city of Richmond.
The painting descended through the family, and during the Civil War, found itself in Oxford, Mississippi. During the Union occupation of that city, the family cut the portrait out of its frame, and it was folded and stored under the porch for safekeeping. In the ensuing years, it was transported to various locations around the country, in the process losing both the identity of the subject and the artist. “The picture was kept in the family until we acquired it,”
Svoboda said. “It was a rare painting by a rare artist.” But there were condition challenges. Over time, small paint losses had occurred along the fold lines and it had been largely overpainted to hide its hard history, making conservation challenging. Fortunately, many of the fold lines still held the original paint.
An earlier attempt at conservation in the 1980s used heavily applied, reversible materials, Svoboda said. “An original lawn bowling game was retouched out, and we found it under the earlier retouching. The earlier process did not have the advantage of historical context.
“We use various tools to understand what the painting was originally,” she said. These may include a microscope, x-rays or sampling to see how the painting was initially made. “A colleague specializing in architectural preservation determined the historical context of the work.” Based upon original painting details uncovered in the recent cleaning, the setting was determined to be Westover Plantation, childhood home of Anne Byrd Carter.
Conservation of the portrait began with removing all that didn’t belong and documenting each step of the process. The good fortune of finding original paint in some of the many folds allowed an approach that reduced the visibility of the condition problem while still honoring the artist’s intent. “Once the choice of varnishing is made, a light application is applied,” Svoboda explained. “After varnishing, I integrate the original with minimal fill and careful repainting. The approach is always ‘less is more.’” The resulting restoration still allows viewers to see fold lines, but original elements such as the lawn game and fence posts are once again visible.
“What underlies so much of my approach is wanting to understand how things work,” Svoboda said. “We have a lot of wonderful analytical equipment, but we first have to start with the ‘SEE,’a careful examination that leads to asking the right questions. The more you look, the more you see.” She credits The W with the skills that have led to a fulfilling and challenging career. “Biochemistry is the language I use in cleaning, and Dr. Howell taught me that. Drawing and painting, also learned at The W, are foundational. The W’s rigorous academic programs—in art and in the sciences—prepared me for a highly competitive graduate program and for everything that followed.
Professors such as Dr. Howell, Dr. Parker, and Dr. Stringer were major influences.”
At the heart of it all is Svoboda’s innate curiosity to look and to see. “Every painting in front of me is like a mystery to be solved,” she said.