Conservation, digital restoration, and interactive educational tool
The project is the physical cleaning and conservation, and the digital restoration of a massive view of the city of Providence, Rhode Island, depicted originally on The Old Drop-scene, a view of the city from a vantage at the base of present-day Federal Hill, painted ca. 1810. Its digital restoration will enable this rare graphic representation of the city to begin a new life as a web-based interactive exhibition and educational tool.
History of The Old Drop-scene
This is the earliest known surviving American theater drop-scene. It is certainly the largest graphic view of Providence owned by the RIHS, and one of the earliest, having been painted about 1809 or 1810. It was acquired by the Society in 1833, soon after the theater was demolished and the land sold to the Grace Church Corporation (1832). The artist was John Worrall (ca. 1783–September 14, 1825), a scenery painter engaged by the Boston Theater (Federal Street).
In the early 1790s, Boston was resistant to the establishment of theaters, but the people of Rhode Island were more receptive, and it was agreed to allow a permanent theater to be built in Providence. John Brown gave the lot (the corner of Westminster and Mathewson, where Grace Church now stands), and subscribed for seven shares of stock in the company.
Construction on the building began August 6, 1795 and the first show opened a little over a month later; it measured 81 x 50 feet, fronting on Westminster Street. The proscenium was 16 x 24 feet, and over the arch was a scroll, bearing the motto: “Pleasure the means; the end virtue.”
The display of this scene is recorded in broadside advertisements for the theater, stating that there “will be exhibited a grand panorama view of the town of Providence from a correct drawing taken on the spot. The drawing and painting by Mr. Worrall.”
Phase I: Physical cleaning and restoration (2018)
The first recorded conservation and stabilization treatments were performed on the drop-scene in the early 1980s by the Williamstown Conservation Center with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In July 2018, Curtains Without Borders lowered and gently vacuumed the entire object by using dusting brushes to direct surface dirt into the nozzle of a HEPA vacuum on low suction. Areas on the back that were accessible were cleaned in a similar manner (top and bottom margins). The media and linen secondary support were both in good condition. A few small holes were mended with cotton muslin and a low melt conservation adhesive.
Selective painting of past losses from poor storage and handling was carried out until the conservators felt there was overall improvement that was not intrusive to the eye. They concentrated on the vertical seams and long diagonal scratches, with some clarification of the lower steps and balcony to improve the view of the cityscape. Some areas of the image remain ambiguous: there has been some previous 19th-century over-painting. The “ghost images” of arches and columns were left untouched, since they are part of the history of the piece.
Phase II: Digital Restoration (2019–2021)
Artopia Giclée of Stoneham, Massachusetts took 76 digital photographs of the scene during two days of shooting and stitched them together. The image was then digitally retouched using existing visual information, removing “ghost” columns, filling in seam and fold lines, and replacing losses to roofs, siding, windows, chimneys, fences, trees, sidewalks, sky, water, etc. The image was then printed onto large pieces of heavy art paper at 1/4 scale for the artist to work on. The artist physically painted areas of the image that were difficult or impossible to repair digitally. The photographer then shot the physically painted prints and stitched them together to make a newly restored digital image for display and interactive use, both physically and online.
This phase was generously funded by the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation (delmas.org), the Herman H. Rose Civic, Cultural and Media Access Fund (RI Foundation), and by Sylvia Brown through the Hope Foundation (Providence, RI).
These three interactive images show the before and after of the digital restoration.
Phase III: Development as an Online, Interactive tool (2021–2022)
Now that the image has been digitally restored, this rare graphic representation of the city will begin a new life as a vivid, engaging, web-based interactive tool through animation, computer generated graphics, and even virtual reality.
The Providence of the early national period will come alive—a vigorous time when the China and East Indies trade was booming at India Point. Just to the North, up the Providence River, ships continued trading in commodities which had underpinned the city’s wealth for the past century, including the brutal traffic of enslaved people. Veterans of the Revolution were in their fifties and sixties, and the War of 1812 was just brewing. With its 17 cotton mills, Providence was on the cusp of becoming the heartland of the American Industrial Revolution.
In anticipation of this initiative, we have recently launched an online gallery of an outstanding collection owned by the RIHS of nearly 200 playbills for performances at the Providence Theatre. These advertisements detail the plays, the actors, times and dates, ticket prices, and other data crucial to an understanding of the operation of the theater. Since most actors were itinerant, the playbills connect the Providence story to theaters in cities throughout the new republic.
This project will allow historians, teachers, students, researchers, and storytellers a unique and highly accessible way to interpret the city in its local, regional, national, and international contexts.