Kane County History: 'Too Silent' -- After 2-Year Wait, Restored Portraits Tell Stories of Aurora's Past

Kane County History: ‘Too Silent’ — After 2-Year Wait, Restored Portraits Tell Stories of Aurora’s Past

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was contributed by Mary Clark Ormand of the Aurora Historical Society. All images are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.

Too silent.

Those are words that came to mind for art conservator Scott Sherwood when, three years ago, he stood in a storage room at the Aurora Historical Society and surveyed hundreds of portraits neatly arranged in racks, just waiting to be seen.

Half-cleaned portrait of Albert Snook, the president and general manager of the Beacon News in the 1920s.

Once proudly displayed on office walls or in family parlors, time had passed them by. Families scattered, companies merged or went out of business. One by one, these portraits had made their way to the historical society, donated by thoughtful people who felt they should be saved somehow, but just weren’t sure how.

Too silent, Sherwood thought, because while some of the pictures are famous, such as family portraits by the renowned 19th century folk artist Sheldon Peck. Others have no claim to fame and their stories have become misted over by time or even forgotten entirely.

And yet he felt their probing gazes, offering an invitation to enter into their histories and their lives in Aurora. The beliefs, hard work, struggles, failures and triumphs that have gone into the building and flourishing of Aurora were all there and, standing there, Sherwood thought he might have a way to hear them speak.

Approaching Aurora Historical Society Executive Director John Jaros, he proposed an ambitious project of restoring and reframing to create a never-before-seen exhibit of 50-plus portraits. He suggested opening the show in May of 2020.

“The exhibit is a brilliant idea,” Jaros said at the time. “It is a new angle on a wide swath of Aurora, and perhaps best of all, it will be an entirely new experience for our visitors. With just a few exceptions, the public has never had the chance to go nose-to-nose with these historic figures. We’re very excited about bringing them out.”

But before it ever saw the light of day, the exhibit fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Pierce Art and History Center was closed by city decree for 15 months and only reopened in the summer of 2021.

Portrait with arched frame in upside down position.

“History takes the long view,” historical society vice president Greg Probst says now. “These Aurorans have been waiting much longer than a couple of years to greet their descendants and fellow citizens. I have to believe they were OK with that relatively short delay.”

Sherwood said putting together an exhibit of this size was tough.

“We have hundreds of portraits of all kinds and in all sorts of media,” he said. “John and I discussed each one and what each would bring to an exhibit. Before the Brownie camera and the cell phone selfie, you didn’t have your image recorded unless you were accomplished or influential. We had to choose among all those interesting people.”

Once the choices were made, the work of cleaning and repairing pictures as well as frames began.

Many of the pictures were merely grimy, the result of hanging in buildings where wood-burning stoves and coal burning furnaces created indoor pollution affecting everything from wallpaper and draperies to human lungs. Some of the pictures had rips and tears, the result of decades of getting knocked around in attics and garages.

Sherwood says he worked with a very light hand, carefully cleaning and patching and making no changes, although this exhibit called for one most unusual change, one he has never encountered in a long career as a conservator.

A lovely and colorful portrait of a woman had been placed upside down in its frame.

“With a conventional square or rectangular frame,” he says, “you’d never know or notice. But in this case, the frame had an arched interior opening, and for who knows how long the poor lady was balancing for dear life atop this arch.”

Sherwood rectified the situation, which had the additional effect of finally revealing the artist’s signature.

“That was the easiest and most satisfying fix of the whole project,” he said.

Challenges Galore

You can see the damage to the canvas of this Alice Faubel portrait painted in 1893 by Ivan Peronet (left) as well as the “after” portrait now on display at The Pierce Art and History Center.

Restoration of frames is often more difficult and time-consuming than restoration of canvas and paper. And in this case, some of the portraits were without frames entirely.

The historical society turned to Tim Richardson of If These Walls Could Talk frame shop in downtown Aurora for frames in suitable styles.

The biggest challenge, mostly because of its larger size, was the glamorous portrait of Alice Faubel, the young Ogle County woman who was painted in 1893 by Ivan Peronet.

Sherwood used 19th century pressing irons as weights to help flatten a canvas before work began.

After the death of her husband, Faubel moved to Aurora, bringing her portrait with her. Her portrait sustained a large rip in the center, requiring Sherwood to patch and in-paint. In the exhibit now, she is looking fresh and lively and entirely whole.

The exhibit contains 83 pieces large and small in a variety of media such as oil, watercolor, charcoal, pastel over photograph, photograph and sculpture. The images represent mostly local but also a few national figures, and represent a 160-year range — from 1846 (Wagner Family by Sheldon Peck) to 2006 (Senobio Nila photo portrait by Jimi Allen).

Many have been in the historical society’s collection for more than 70 years.

“It’s not that I didn’t understand what Scott meant when he said those portraits were too silent,” Jaros now says. “But today, when I walk into the gallery, I can almost feel the hum and rustle of conversation. It’s a little like hearing pages turn in a quiet library. Stories are being told.”

The exhibit will be on display through April.  Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Admission is free, although donations are welcome. Mask are required. The Pierce Art and History Center is located at 20 E. Downer Place in Aurora.

Feature Photo Caption

Sherwood points out minor damage to a portrait of Ruth Van Sickle Ford, painted by her friend, Benjamin Kanne.


Read The Kane County History Series!

Sign Up To KCC E-Newsletter