Saving a Whimsical Mural of an Animal Circus

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by Flora Arguilla, UC Santa Barbara, Art History Dept, Art Conservation Intern

The destruction of Hubbell Reed McBride’s mural, Animal Circus, would have meant the tragic loss of a whimsical, colorful, and beautifully detailed historical painting that everyone from children to adults has enjoyed for decades. People who care about artistic and historical heritage, professional art conservation technology and extensive mural restoration expertise made the preservation of this masterpiece possible.

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It was created in 1940, with oil paint on canvas adhered to a wall using a technique called marouflaged and is 6 ft high and 27 ft long!

Some of the first things that come to mind while looking at this marvelous work of art are the words “cute” and “fun!” The artistic quality of this piece

and the enjoyable subject matter is unparalleled — if you don’t believe me, do a Google search for “animal circus murals”. No other mural of the same quality even comes close. The fact that it was made specifically for the enjoyment of children makes it even more endearing.

When the building that the mural was original located was demolished decades later, the technique of gluing the canvas the wall with starch paste turned out to be a life saver for the mural. Fortunately, the mural on canvas was able to be taken off and saved it. Though badly damaged with the inept removal technique, it survived until it could get professional mural conservation treatments.

Although the mural was in storage in Denver, the owner’s searched nationally for a mural restoration expert who was experienced in treating such large paintings. A knowledgeable contact in Santa Fe, NM referred them to Fine Art Conservation Laboratories (FACL) in Santa Barbara, CA who was, at the time, just finishing up on the lining (backing) and conservation of three 30 foot paintings for the State of Texas.

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The mural’s cracking and flaking was stabilized and the painting was backed with a stiff support to prevent distortions in the mural and prepared it for reinstallation. Once treated Animal Circus was preserved for generations to come.

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A Short Biography on HR McBride (1892-1960)

As a boy, Hubbell grew up in Mansfield, Ohio and developed a talent for drawing animals that made people smile. He came to understand that art has the ability to touch the lives of millions of people. After high school, he found a job in Cleveland, making illustrations for a newspaper syndicate, but they eventually let him go. After a year there, he had gained enough confidence to try the big market in New York.

Fortunately, this led to him become friends with the founder of Editor and Publisher magazine. He had established connections in the industry, and for the next 25 years he distinguished himself as cover artist and illustrator for several top Hearst publications

like Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping, as well as the Saturday Evening Post and Liberty & Collier’s Weekly Magazine.

Although he had a taste of the fast-paced life of a professional artist in New York, something that some people could only dream of, he walked away from his successful illustrator’s career to spend his life in rural America in order to put smiles into the lives of everyone who encountered his playful images in that region.

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His work is easily recognizable for its warm humor, and for animals with memorable personalities. With a wealth of experience in graphic arts, McBride was a gift to the community in the 40s and 50s, painting a wide canvas of all sorts: from sacred scenes in the First Congregational Church in Lexington, to background drops for the Mansfield Players and Children’s Theater. Cartoon farm animals were undoubtedly a fan favorite, even from his very earliest works. In his drawings, McBride showcased the whimsical personalities and characteristics of the animals he was familiar with in his drawings, while also adding a touch of fun by drawing the animals with funny faces.

In the 1940s Reed McBride painted several murals in Richland County that became well-known landmarks in stores, churches and the Municipal Building. Below is a mural he created for the Ven-Mar market on Marion Avenue.

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Questions? Call Scott M. Haskins, Oriana Montemurro, Virginia Panizzon Art Conservators 805 564 3438 faclartdoc@gmail.com

For more information, check out these links!

Buck Winn Murals for the State of Texas

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3sZdUqeQnk

FACL’s mural capability statement:

http://www.fineartconservationlab.com/mural/

FACL’s mural consultation statement:

http://www.fineartconservationlab.com/consultations/

FACL videos of mural conservation capabilities:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ld4l6EG8T-I&index=13&list=PLE1FF71CC598A8E79

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