New Bedford Whaling Museum debuts conserved panorama painting

The conservation of a rare panorama painting was unveiled on December 13, 2023, at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, part of the Museum’s effort to restore and conserve large paintings and unusual objects. The restoration was the result of a major, competitive national grant through the “Save America’s Treasures” program.

The painting, a single panel from a 22-panel panorama painted by Charles Sidney Raleigh (1831-1925) between 1878-1880 and titled Panorama of a Whaling Voyage, has undergone a major conservation effort for almost a year at the Gianfranco Pocobene Studios in Greater Boston.

Panorama of a Whaling Voyage is one of only eight known panoramas in US public collections – including two at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Panorama paintings were popular touring entertainments exhibited to working and middle class audiences for a small ticket fee, and rose to prominence in the United States starting in the 1840s. Often accompanied by dramatic music, stage dressing, and narration, static and moving panoramas engaged audiences’ imaginations and offered an exciting and sometimes lurid experience in the days before cinema.

Raleigh’s original 275-foot-long panorama was painted on loose canvas that could be rolled and easily transported to exhibition venues. It included 22 whaling scenes following the 1870-74 voyage of the ship Niger, one of the last great whaling vessels of the time.

The Whaling Ship Niger

The Niger left New Bedford in 1870 for the Pacific, traveling to Tristan da Cunha, the Indian Ocean, and the south coast of Australia, spent seven months in New Zealand, visited the Bay of Islands and Auckland, and then stopped at Norfolk Island and Niue.

Raleigh painted engaging imagery of this Pacific voyage, including ships meeting at sea, catching a whale, and an abandoned ship burning at night. His panorama would have safely transported viewers on a whaling voyage to far-flung locations. 

After being publicly exhibited in New England until at least 1905, the panorama was donated to the Museum in 1918. Conservation measures taken in the 1960s included cutting the painting into sections, mounting each section on heavy aluminum panels, and waxing and then adhering the canvas to the metal substrate. At over 250 pounds each, this treatment made the paintings difficult to move, store, and display, and changed the aesthetic of the pictures, substantially darkening the pigments and flattening the scenes.

Since the 1960s, the practices of art conservation have changed dramatically and the choices made at the time are no longer standard practice. Today, conservators aim to be conservative in their treatments and adhere to the original intent as much as possible. 

In light of this, the Museum partnered with Gianfranco Pocobene Studios to reverse the panel process on the first painting in the series – Sailing Day, off Palmer’s Island, New Bedford, Ship NIGER. The goals were to make the monumental work more maneuverable, and faithfully restore the painting to its original appearance. 

Conserving Panorama of a Whaling Voyage

The conservation of this 6 x 12 foot painting – one of 22 panels that make up the panorama – was no small feat. This groundbreaking conservation effort was the largest aluminum panel reversal ever undertaken and was highly complex. The painstaking process included carefully removing the canvas from the heavy, soldered airplane-grade aluminum panels, removing a thick layer of dark wax that had permeated the canvas, and carefully filling and in-painting hundreds of losses. 

The resulting effect is truly transformative. The conserved painting of Sailing Day, off Palmer’s Island, New Bedford, Ship NIGER is bright and true to its original colors and aesthetic. The painting, which was stretched onto light aluminum stretcher bars after treatment, can be easily moved now, and the canvas itself has a mobility to it that better mirrors the original look of the panorama when it was on exhibition. 

“This project is indicative of the challenges that museums face in dealing with our large collections and unusual objects,” Amanda McMullen, president and CEO of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, said. “It has been exciting to watch this unfold and to see modern conservation techniques applied to bring this rare piece of art back to its original beauty. We are looking forward to sharing our knowledge around this massive project with our colleagues and museum conservation professionals, who may be considering similar projects in future.” 

The conservation effort was led by Gianfranco Pocobene, the Chief Paintings and Research Conservator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the acting principal at Gianfranco Pocobene Studio, where he specializes in the conservation of easel paintings from private and institutional collections and murals in public and private buildings. Some of his past projects include project director of the restoration of the John La Farge murals and decorations in Boston’s Trinity Church and project supervisor of the conservation and restoration of John Singer Sargent’s Triumph of Religion mural cycle at the Boston

Public Library, as well as numerous smaller aluminum panel reversals on paintings in public and private collections. 

This conservation effort was funded by the National Park Service in collaboration with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Charles Sydney Raleigh’s “Panorama of a Whaling Voyage" being conserved at Gianfranco Pocobene Studios.
Charles Sydney Raleigh’s “Panorama of a Whaling Voyage” being conserved at Gianfranco Pocobene Studios. Photo courtesy of New Bedford Whaling Museum.

About the New Bedford Whaling Museum 

The New Bedford Whaling Museum ignites learning through explorations of art, history, science, and culture rooted in the stories of people, the region and an international seaport. The cornerstone of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, the Museum is located at 18 Johnny Cake Hill in the heart of the city’s historic downtown and is open daily 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.

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