Often in the course of restoration our conservators find hidden areas that have been overshadowed by discolouration or darkened varnish for decades. This was certainly the case with a painting by American illustrator Dean Cornwell that recently came to our studio.

Dean Cornwell restoration

The dramatic scene is from a 1918 book entitled The Valley of the Giants by Peter B. Kyne, a prolific Californian author who had numerous stories adapted into early Hollywood films.

When our team was first presented with the painting it appeared to be a depiction of a frightened woman, cowering away from her attacker. We were yet to learn about her true role in this powerful story – the chronicle of a family in the pacific northwest. The restoration would reveal important clues, giving the painting an entirely new context.

Who is Dean Cornwell?

Cornwell was a popular illustrator for magazines, advertisements and books in the first half of the 20th century. His dominance in the market gave him the nickname ‘Dean of Illustrators’. As well as commercial work, he also produced large scale murals for state buildings, influential businesses and memorials across the United States, many still decorate the buildings they were designed for today. 

Dean CornwellAbove: an illustration by Dean Cornwell

Cornwell’s classic illustrator style is typical of the era he worked in, but also has an impressionistic influence in the use of bold and effective brush strokes. Unlike the sometimes kitsch style of Norman Rockwell, Cornwell’s work confidently uses shadow for dramatic effect, giving his artwork a strong sense of melodrama. 

CornwellAbove: an illustration by Cornwell for The Desert Healer, 1923

The Valley of the Giants

Although it goes much forgotten today, Peter B. Kyne’s The Valley of the Giants was a successful publication in the early 20th century with film adaptations in 1919, 1927, 1938 and 1952. It follows a family who run a mill at a time of financial struggle – perhaps owing later popularity to readers and movie goers who had experienced the great depression themselves. There is also a focus on the growth of new redwood trees for future generations, creating a ‘valley of the giants’ similar to the tree lined ‘avenue of the giants’ that exists in northern California. 

CornwellAbove: a detail from an illustration by Cornwell

“The man was John Cardigan; in that lonely, hostile land he was the first pioneer. This is the tale of Cardigan and Cardigan’s son, for in his chosen land the pioneer leader in the gigantic task of hewing a path for civilization was to know the bliss of woman’s love and of parenthood, and the sorrow that comes of the loss of a perfect mate; he was to know the tremendous joy of accomplishment and worldly success after infinite labour; and in the sunset of life he was to know the dull despair of failure and ruin.” – a passage from The Valley of the Giants

Some of the lack of readership of this book today is due to outdated and stereotypical descriptions of women that dominate the plot. However, Cornwell’s illustration of the story chooses purposefully to present a strong female character, who – as we were to discover – is not as weak as she first appears.

The restoration 

When the painting was first assessed it was clear that the surface varnish was hiding some of the colour and details. It was discovered by our conservators to be a mixture of spray varnish and a PVA type substance, either applied by the artist or in a past restoration. The layers were sensitively tested, allowing our team to create the correct solution to remove both safely. Areas of lost and cracking paint were also stabilised to prevent flaking.

Paint lossAbove: areas of paint loss and filler (centre) where our conservators have stabilised the area

Illustrations in oil paint were often completed in a short time, so this was why our conservator noticed that the quality of the paint work was unlike that of a piece composed for sale. The painting had not been created to last a long time and many were destroyed or painted over following the publication of a book or magazine. 


During the process of cleaning the surface and removing these top layers, the details of the painting became clear. The character was not in fact cowering away from an attacker, she was concealing a pistol in her left hand. This was made clear when our client was able to find the exact passage of the book she had been composed from:

“The cleaning makes visible her left arm which she is holding behind her back to conceal a pistol. The story goes that the young lady’s boyfriend had been arrested and locked up by the Mounties; she has come to the jail to get him loose. Apparently, she succeeded but the story did not have a happy ending.” 

Cornwell before after

Following the restoration, the painting appeared refreshed and clear, much to our client’s delight. When asked about their experience with us, they had this to say:

“The service is first class, attentive and considerate. The restoration gave me back a painting that had darkened over time, and I now enjoy. First class restoration.”

If you have an oil painting in need of conservation treatment or a professional assessment, please speak to our helpful team today.

To make contact please email us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576

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