Labor of love makes old painting new again

Bob Swain restored what is believed to be the only surviving work of artist James O’Neill. The painting of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was commissioned by Bishop John Baptist Miege.

by Jessica Langdon
jessica.langdon@theleaven.org

TOPEKA — With a skilled hand, Bob Swain performed what could almost be compared to surgery.

Swain, a member of Mater Dei Parish in Topeka and owner of Beauchamp’s Gallery, even prayed through some of the more delicate procedures.

His task wasn’t an easy one as he set out to make what was old new again — to make something broken whole.

Swain’s patient wasn’t a person, but a 150-year-old painting.

Commissioned by a bishop

In 1861 — still more than a decade before the archdiocese in its current form was established — Bishop John Baptist Miege commissioned this painting of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

It was to hang in his cathedral in Leavenworth.

The framed oil-on-canvas painting is believed to be the only surviving work of the artist James O’Neill.

Thanks to the research of Don Jensen, a retired reporter and editor in Kenosha, Wis. — which was O’Neill’s home before a job opportunity brought him to Leavenworth — O’Neill’s story and his painting are seeing new life.

And after a major face-lift under Swain’s direction, the artwork is now ready for its public debut and will make several stops in the archdiocese.

Fittingly, its first was at Bishop Miege High School.

Discovering O’Neill

Despite Jensen’s extensive knowledge of local history, he’d never heard of the Irish-born O’Neill before he came across an article while browsing through old microfilm in 2005.

The report was about O’Neill’s death.

The Wisconsin paper in 1863 reported that “native son” O’Neill had been among those killed at the hands of “Confederate irregulars” under William Quantrill in an incident known as the Baxter Springs Massacre.

O’Neill was only 30.

As Jensen delved further into details of O’Neill’s life, he learned that in addition to being a painter, O’Neill was an actor, a Union man and a bit of a comedian and prankster.

He was skilled at set design and worked on massive panoramic pieces that were basically the travelogues of the day.

Jensen described O’Neill as being “embedded” with Union Gen. James Blunt’s men, capturing their activities in pictures, writings and cartoons.

Disappointing news

When Jensen read of O’Neill’s painting of the Assumption, he initially believed the piece, like the rest of O’Neill’s art, had disappeared into history, especially when he read that the cathedral where the painting had hung burned more than a century ago.

“End of the line. No more story. No known surviving painting of Jim O’Neill’s,” Jensen concluded.

But that didn’t turn out to be the end of the story.

Glimmer of hope

“Then lightning struck twice,” he said.

Again, while merely browsing through old Kenosha articles, he came across a report from Topeka in the mid-1870s.

“[It] referred to a portrait of the Virgin Mary that had recently been hung in the local Catholic church [in Topeka], mentioning that it had been painted by poor Jim O’Neill who died in the Baxter Springs Massacre,” Jensen explained. “The light went on.”

The painting, he realized, had somehow made it from Leavenworth to Topeka. It made sense, given that the painting’s subject and the name of the church — Assumption — were the same.

So Jensen gave it one last try and sent a letter to the editor of the Topeka Capital Journal inquiring after the painting.

Good, quality painting

By the time the letter ran in February 2011, Swain was actually already familiar with the painting — even though he hadn’t yet heard of O’Neill.

A few years earlier, Swain had gotten a call from someone at Assumption wanting him to look at a painting that was in storage. He found the unsigned painting to be an original work of art and a good-quality piece, which showed Mary surrounded by cherubic angels.

However, its condition was far from perfect.

“It had holes in it, lots of holes,” said Swain. “The whole surface was peeling off of it. Even good paint was coming loose.”

The painting was then moved into an upstairs storage room in the school to get it into a better environment. There it stayed until Swain had cause to take a fresh look at it.

When people saw Jensen’s letter in 2011 and started asking around, Sister Corita Conlan, SCL, longtime principal at Assumption School in Topeka, remembered the painting hanging in an alcove at the school for years.

And when Swain came across Jensen’s letter, he also knew exactly what it was referring to.

There was only one thing to do: “Let’s see what we can do to save it,” Swain said.

Painstaking process

When the framed painting made it to his workshop at Beauchamp’s Gallery, it needed a lot of work.

“The hardest part is just getting it stabilized,” Swain explained.

He started by taking off the frame in order to be better able to focus on the painting itself. It was brittle, worn and damaged in many places.

Pieces of the original canvas were missing, and someone had previously made some makeshift efforts to patch up parts of it.

Swain — an artist himself — learned his restoration skills at the hands of the late Paul Beauchamp, from whom Swain and his wife Kim bought the gallery they now own. The technique Swain learned is the same one large museums would use.

“For four weeks, all we did was soak it in conditioner,” Swain said.

The painting soaked up the linseed and emollients like a sponge.

They then relined the canvas by applying a waxy compound, sort of like candle wax, to the back of the old painting and adhering that canvas to a second canvas added to the back.

“You literally are ironing it together,” he explained. “The wax then goes through the old canvas” and holds the paint on, without which the paint “would just fall off in clumps” at the merest touch.

Entire pieces of the old canvas were still missing, however, so Swain had to rework those parts using the context of the rest of the painting to guide him. He even matched the colors to the ones that would have been used during the Civil War era.

Finally, he reworked the frame, molding and perfecting pieces that had succumbed to age and wear.

Symbolism in the art

Although the painting doesn’t include a signature, it holds something else both Jensen and Swain believe could be just that — a cherub whose face doesn’t quite match those of the others.

Many of the cherubs have their arms lifted in a heavenly direction.

“Their effort or their gaze, they’re focused on Mary,” said Swain. “They’re lifting her up . . .  except this little guy.”

This little angel at the bottom of the painting doesn’t look as young or sweet as the others, nor does he gesture upward or have his eyes fixed on Mary. It’s almost as if he’s looking right at the viewer, with a little smirk on his face.

“Jointly we concluded that as his little joke [exactly the sort of practical joke Jim would have loved to play] we think O’Neill painted his own likeness as the face of one of the cherubs,” said Jensen.

Back where it belongs 

As a Catholic and parishioner at Mater Dei, the parish formed from Assumption and Holy Name churches, Swain enjoyed making this painting ready once again for the world to see.

Jensen is also thrilled at this development in O’Neill’s story.

“It is a delight to me to have tracked down and helped save James R. O’Neill’s only surviving artwork,” he said.

“And I am so pleased to know that it will again hang, appreciated, where it belongs!”

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