By Virginia and Robert Guess
Edwin Deakin (1838-1923) developed his artistic talents in depicting landscape and architecture scenes before he set out to paint the twenty-one Missions of Alta California. He completed three series in the late 1800s, two in oil and one in watercolor. In each painting, Deakin documented the structures remaining at the Mission by the end of the nineteenth century, and captured the landscape to reflect the mood of the time.
In 1955, one of the two series in oil was donated to the Franciscan Friars of the Province of Saint Barbara with the proviso the paintings remain on view at Old Mission Santa Barbara and that the set never be broken. In 2014, Dr. Monica Orozco, Director of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library, initiated a conservation fund to preserve these paintings on display at the Archive-Library by seeking donors to sponsor a painting of their choice.
We chose to sponsor Deakin’s painting of Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad as he portrayed it in its ruined and abandoned state. This window into the past reminded us of the hardships of early mission life and of those who participated in the colonization of Alta California.
Mission Soledad endured numerous disasters. The original church built at the perimeter of a quadrangle was damaged three times by flooding of the Salinas River before being abandoned. In 1828, religious services were transferred to a small chapel at the opposite end of the quadrangle that was utilized until 1834 when the Mission was finally closed. In his painting, Deakin captured the ruins of this chapel and the adjacent convento. He most likely depended on earlier images and other artists’ renditions, using the remaining adobe walls of the Mission chapel as inspiration for his work.
With sponsorship came the opportunity to observe the conservation process, as well as to view the verso or back of the painting where Deakin added information to personalize his work. Fortunately, the painting had no cracking on the painted surface, and required only meticulous cleaning to reveal the original colors.
At Fine Art Conservation Lab (http://www.fineartconservationlab.com/) in Santa Barbara, owned by Scott M. Haskins, a team of expert conservators used up-to-date technology and materials to stabilize the painting. Conservation involved cleaning the surface of grey matter, mainly the soot and grime collected over the years and the old varnish yellowed through aging. After careful cleaning, the conservators applied new varnish using a product that will not yellow over time. Once stabilized, the painting was returned to its original frame that had been strengthened and the paint regenerated. The removal of dust layers and addition of a protective coating restored luster to the wooden frame. Conservation is expected to last for generations given the proper conditions of controlled lighting and minimal exposure to atmospheric pollutants that Mission Santa Bárbara Archive-Library provides.
On the verso of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, Deakin signed his name, the date the Mission was established, “October 9, 1791,” and those Franciscan friars present at the founding: ”Lasuen” (Fray Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, Presidente of the Alta California Missions from 1786 to 1803); “Sitjar” (Fray Buenaventura Sitjar who was assigned to nearby Mission San Antonio de Padua at the time); and “Garcia” (Fray Diego García who directed Mission Soledad until 1797). The latter Franciscan friar is not to be confused with the first bishop of the California missions, Bishop Francisco García Diego y Moreno (1785-1846).
In addition, Deakin included on the verso what is purported to be a Deakin “coat of arms” above his signature. Little is known about this heraldic symbol other than some art historians suggest that Deakin, born in England in 1838, had a penchant for English aristocracy and invented his own “coat of arms” or “family crest” that he often drew on the back of many of his paintings.
Today, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad appears quite different from his painting. In 1955, restoration of the chapel was completed under the auspices of the Native Daughters of the Golden West using only one front corner of the adobe wall seen in Deakin’s painting. The attached convento, reconstructed in 1963, now serves as a museum. Only a few foundation stones and floor tiles remain at the site of the original church. Although Nuestra Señora de la Soledad is one of the more remote and least visited of the California Missions, it represents the difficulties the Franciscan friars faced in establishing mission communities, and then their rapid deterioration following secularization.
[Editor’s note: Fine Arts Conservation Laboratories has generously offered free access to their e-book, Save Your Stuff: Collection Care Tips. The e-book is available at http://www.collectioncaretips.com/ ]