World’s Longest Painting Restored at New Bedford Whaling Museum
NEW BEDFORD — What may very well be the longest painting in the world has been completely restored, and will soon be shared with the public at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
About 10 years ago, the process began to evaluate and restore "Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World," a quarter-mile long painting that toured the United States after it was completed in 1848. It traveled the country on wagons and trains, continuously rolled and unrolled, causing wear and tear on the cotton sheeting it was painted on, and the paint began to dry up and crumble.
"It was donated to the museum quite a long time ago," said Dr. Christina Connett, Chief Curator of the Whaling Museum. "Nobody seemed to know where it was for a period of time. It was stored by a private owner, then it was given to the museum 100 years ago."
Connett says one museum director in the second half of the 20th century almost disposed of it, considering it to be valueless because it was so difficult to store.
"Luckily, the curator at the time basically hid it in storage until later on, when it was again appreciated," she said. "It was actually rescued from the dump by one of the former curators who saw that it had potential for the future."
The panorama is on four different rolls, almost like camera film.
"It was originally shown with an intermission period as the rolls were switched out," Connett said. "The rolls in their entirety are 1,275 feet, and it's just way too large for one spool, way too large for any contraption to hold, so it had to be separated into four different sections."
The panorama was painted by Benjamin Russell, a commercial artist who had also spent a number of years working on whaleships.
"When he came back, he saw this as a really wonderful commercial enterprise for public entertainment," Connett said. "It was a whole genre, with World's Fairs, moving paranormas, cycloramas, in the mid-19th century."
Russell hired Caleb Purrington, a housepainter and sign painter, to help him with the larger scenes and backgrounds, while Russell worked on the ships and finer artistic details. It took the two artists a year to complete the painting.
"It will never be shown the way it was originally intended again, in terms of rolling and unrolling it in front of the public," Connett said. "It'll be shown more like a cylcorama, statically, mounted on temporary walls so people can walk around the entire 1,275-foot panorama. But we're also having it digitized and shown in a way that's consistent with its original design, a way to experience the public spectacle but without damaging the original."
Textile conservators Charlotte Hamlin and Kate Tarleton worked to restore the panorama to its original glory, stitching various holes and patches that were missing, and piecing back edges that were cut in order to display it over the years. They also affixed a gelatin spray to the paint to avoid it powdering off the cotton sheeting in the future.
"It did get a lot of wear and tear, but it's in beautiful condition now," Connett said. "And now that it's been digitized, it can be enjoyed by the public in a much greater detail than ever before."
The restoration effort cost $400,000, and got some substantial grants to cover that cost.
"Now that we've spent all this money and time to conserve it, we want to show it to the public, but we have to make sure we're doing that in a way that's consistent with the integrity of the object," Connett said. "Now that we've put it back in stable condition, we don't ever want to jeopardize that again."
The current plan is for the Whaling Museum to hold a major exhibition of the panorama next summer, and then possibly traveling with it for a couple of years after that.