For more than 80 years, the celebrated Colorado artist John E. Thompson‘s luminous Art Nouveau Shakespeare mural languished under countless layers of cheap paint slapped on by stage crews who often had no idea that the obliterated mural ever existed.
The mural, which decorates the University of Denver’s Little Theatre proscenium, was on display for just over a year after its debut in 1929. Then the university’s new theater director had it covered with black paint. Thompson, who taught at DU’s art department, was livid but powerless.
Over time, paint built up like geologic sediment, effectively making one-dimensional fossils of Lady MacBeth, the archbishop of Canterbury, the three crones and other familiar Shakespeare characters. Thompson’s mural was all but forgotten.
Then seven years ago, DU curator Dan Jacobs learned that Thompson had once painted a mural in Margery Reed Hall, which houses the Little Theatre. After scouring the building without luck, he thought of the theater itself.
A false proscenium had been built over the original, but a ladder and a precarious catwalk offered access to an area in the center that had never been completely painted over. Clutching his digital camera, Jacobs scaled the ladder, crawled over the catwalk, and snapped some photos.
“It was very filthy, with everything covered in dust, but I could see painted foliage and what turned out to be the hat of one of the pages flanking Shakespeare’s head,” Jacobs said.
He immediately contacted Lisa Capano, an expert in fine arts restoration and conservation. Jacobs knew Capano because she had worked on some paintings and a Venus de Milo statue in the university’s collection.
“We went over to do some trial cleaning on the proscenium arch,” Capano recalled.
“I started applying various solvents, swelling the layers of old paint and removing them, until slowly, we worked our way to the mural’s surface. And there it was. Still bright, shiny and in pretty good condition!”
From there, Jacobs found funding to restore the mural. With $75,000 in donations, he and Capano, with a team of about 17 students from the school’s pre-conservation art program, got to work.
They had to squeeze their sessions between classes, rehearsals and school vacations. Sometimes they could work only an hour before putting away their solvents and tools.
But now, the mural is glowing again and starting this fall, community groups will be able to reserve the hall for speakers or film screenings. The gray owls, reminiscent of the animated birds in early Disney movies, are in place, looking stern. Lady MacBeth is back to washing her hands. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, looks down benevolently, a minor character present here because DU alum Jean Cranmer was a principal donor to the Thompson mural.
And there is Shakespeare, gazing primly down at the reappointed theater, windows flanked by heavy curtains. After more than eight decades, the mural is enjoying its day in the sun again. But this time, the golden light will last longer than 13 months.