A brief note in The American Rhode Island The newspaper for July 7, 1812 announced that at the Providence Theater the following evening, a “grand panoramic view of the city of Providence” would be unveiled. It was a monumental 15 x 24 foot stage or theater curtain, painted by Boston painter John Worrall (c. 1785-1825), showing in vivid colors nearly 200 homes, businesses and churches in the flourishing city. The fall scene panorama was a big hit with local citizens and was shown two or three times a season for the next few years as a special attraction between plays, before moving to a traditional fall scene, until when the theater closed in 1832. .
The Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS), an affiliate of the Smithsonian, recently completed a unique hybrid restoration of the drop scene, a prized work in its collection since 1833 and the oldest known work of American theater scenery. The curtain has suffered numerous losses of paint over the years, and some minor traditional restorations took place in the early 1980s and again in 2018, but the damaged and fragile condition of the object, as well as its very large size, resulted in a more physical restoration. would have been too intrusive and costly. Working with a photographer specializing in the digital restoration of works of art and a painter trained in painting theater scenes, the RIHS has developed a unique plan to recreate what this work looked like in the early 19th century. Thanks to generous funding from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Herman H. Rose Civic, Cultural and Media Access Fund (RI Foundation) and Sylvia Brown through the Hope Foundation (Providence, RI), the hybrid digital restoration project was able to begin . .
The curtain was photographed in 78 sections, and photo editing software was used to retouch damaged areas as much as possible. This was done in multiple layers, which helped preserve the texture and feel of the original artwork, which is a water-based paint on sailcloth or canvas, while missing details and colors have been digitally replaced on other layers. Large-scale archival reproduction prints were made up of sections too damaged or indistinct to be retouched by photo retouching, and the painter then worked on these prints. Using the brushwork, shading and skill of a traditional artist, as well as studying detail in large images to learn as much as possible about the paints and pigments Worrall used, the painter was able to reproduce as much faithfully possible the style of the original. Finally, these overpainted prints were photographed and the digital files were put together, creating a large image of the fall scene as it would have originally appeared. This digital image is an interpretation only – the original artwork remains untouched – so if new information or research shows that changes need to be made to color choices or certain details for example, then this can easily be done at any time on the digital file.
RIHS plans to create an interactive website for the Falling Scene Project and study of this renovated work, allowing scholars and the public to investigate Providence of the Early National Period; its architecture, its people, its businesses, its theater and more. Also, the RIHS strongly wishes that other institutions discover the possibilities of this hybrid restoration approach, for the conservation of large or fragile works, tapestries, banners, decorative hangings and murals. It offers the benefits of digital access to an important work, while taking a thoughtful approach to balancing restoration with the integrity of the original object.