Eli Wilner & Company restores the period frame on W.F.K. Travers' portrait of Abraham Lincoln

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Eli Wilner & Company restores the period frame on W.F.K. Travers' portrait of Abraham Lincoln
Corner construction of the period frame housing a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, painted by W.F.K. Travers in 1864 or 1865, during the restoration process at Eli Wilner & Company, for the Hartley Dodge Foundation. Photo by Joseph Painter.

NEW YORK, NY.- Eli Wilner & Company was honored to be chosen by the Hartley Dodge Foundation (HDF) in Madison, New Jersey to restore the period frame on their extraordinary standing portrait of Abraham Lincoln, painted by W.F.K. Travers in 1864 or 1865, approximately 9 x 6 feet. The intriguing backstory of the artist and this portrait was recently featured in a Washington Post article by the renowned Lincoln scholar, Ted Widmer, author of “Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days in Washington”. Link to article:


The Travers’ Lincoln portrait was first notably on public view in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Several decades later, after various changes in ownership, it was acquired by Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, who funded the building of the Hartley Dodge Memorial (HDM) in memory of her son Hartley. The building was constructed at the very same time that her cousins were involved in the development of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, and some of the same craftspeople were employed. The building’s steel, marble and granite construction, along with massive bronze doors give it the same level of beauty and permanence. It serves as the town hall of Madison, New Jersey and was dedicated in 1935. A few years later the framed portrait was installed prominently in the Council Room.

Due to minimal photographic documentation, it has yet to be determined when exactly the portrait was paired with the existing period frame: a bundled reed molding, gilded with applied cross and corner straps. The frame was designed for travel, built in sections with carriage bolts securing the miters so that it can be easily disassembled. This hardware is in recessed channels, only visible when directly viewed from the sides.

The Trustees of HDF initially enlisted Wilner in the Fall of 2019 to appraise and examine the frame while they were in the process of preparing to have the painting itself conserved. Following Wilner’s examination of the frame, it was determined that the frame itself should also be properly restored. Most of the frame’s surface was covered in layers of paint, most likely attempts to disguise gilding losses and other cracks and chips from much earlier in its 157 year history. The frame miters were also opening and the build-up on the verso did not fully encase the stretched canvas. There were several challenges to consider, including unframing the painting, transporting it to a conservator in another state, and the timing of it being taken off of public view for several months. The latter aspect ended up becoming much less of an issue due to the coincidence of the building being closed to the public due to Covid-19 related restrictions.

In the Summer of 2020, after extensive detailed planning, the framed painting was de installed and the painting unfit from the frame on-site. The portrait was then secured inside a travel crate for transport to conservator Mark Bockrath’s studio in Pennsylvania, and the frame was packed into a separate travel crate and transported to Wilner’s frame restoration studio in Long Island City, NY. Due to their massive size, both crates, weighing about 200lbs each, had to be carefully hand-carried down the Memorial’s elegant marble staircases to be loaded onto a dedicated truck.

After arrival at Wilner’s studio, the frame was closely examined by artisans individually specialized in carpentry, gilding, and finishing. The existing build-up was temporarily removed as well as the carriage bolts so the four lengths of the frame could be treated individually. The inner flat liner was also dismantled to be repaired separately, having one very substantial crack and overall warp. During the cleaning process, the gilding on the strap ornaments was determined to be original and every effort was made to preserve it. The rest of the frame surface required extensive repairs, including filling cracks and losses, and removing multiple layers of paint. Layers of new clay were applied to prepare the frame for re-gilding. The finishing team used period frames in the Wilner collection as references for color, and worked carefully to maintain the natural character of the frame, including bringing back the contrast of the highly burnished cross straps over the unburnished bundled reeding. Meanwhile, the carpentry team devised a way to improve the existing build-up by increasing the depth with new wood, but still re-purposing all of the original materials. The frame miters were reassembled with the same carriage bolts.

In the Summer of 2021, in coordination with the completion of the painting restoration, the Travers’ portrait and frame were both returned to Hartley Dodge Memorial, with the painting refitted into the frame on-site, and immediately reinstalled inside the Council Room.

Eli Wilner & Company is proud to add this project to a long list of artworks relating to important moments in American History that they have worked on, including 27 frames for The White House, the framing of the flag from Custer’s Last Stand, the replacement of an original lookingglass for George Washington’s Mount Vernon, a hand-carved replica of the Resolute Desk for the George W. Bush Presidential Library, and the recreation of the lost frame on Emanuel Leutze’s monumental “Washington Crossing the Delaware” for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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