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Eugene F. Farrell: In Memoriam

posted by CAA — Aug 14, 2012

Francesca G. Bewer is research curator at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Harvard Art Museums.

Eugene F. Farrell

Eugene Farrell, ca. late 1970s, in the analytical laboratory at the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies (photograph provided by the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Harvard Art Museums)

It is with sadness that I inform you of the death of Eugene F. Farrell, former senior conservation scientist at the Harvard Art Museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. Gene passed away in his sleep on March 19, 2012, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was 78 years old. Farrell will be remembered by generations of conservators as a generous colleague and a dedicated teacher. He was knowledgeable, calm, and open minded—qualities for which he was greatly appreciated, especially during discussions and at meetings.

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1933, Farrell came to the conservation field with a background in geology. He received a BA cum laude and an MA in geology from Boston University, which he supplemented with courses in X-radiography, physics, mathematics, geochemistry, and petrology. In 1956, the same year he married Lynne Breda, he became a member of the Scientific Research Society, Sigma Xi, which “honors excellence in scientific investigation and encourages a sense of companionship and cooperation among researchers in all fields of science and engineering.” Farrell was a teaching fellow the following year at Boston University and spent the summer of 1958 studying ice cores in Thule, Greenland, as a crystallographer for Permafrost Ice Studies at the Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Research Establishment (then based in Wilmette, Illinois, and now in Hanover, New Hampshire). That led to a job as a research staff member in the Crystal Physics Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1960–77), during which time he published numerous papers in the American Mineralogist, Materials Research Bulletin, and American Ceramics Society Bulletin,among others. He also collaborated on a patent for a “Cathode Ray Tube Whose Image Screen Is Both Cathodochromic and Fluorescent and the Material for the Screen.”

Farrell began his museum career in 1977 after he answered a small “help wanted” ad in the Boston Globe for analytical work at Harvard University’s Fogg Museum in the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies (CCTS). Like Rutherford John Gettens, the museum’s illustrious first staff chemist from 1928 to 1950, Farrell had no prior museum experience but quickly learned to apply his skills and knowledge to the materials of art. He started as assistant conservation scientist under the museum’s science associate, Leon Studolski, and helped to integrate petrography, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), and X-ray diffraction (XRD) in the laboratory work. He was soon promoted to conservation scientist. Shortly thereafter, in 1980, he became the senior conservation scientist of the CCTS, which is now called the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. It was a position he held until his retirement in 2004.

Farrell greatly enjoyed the collaboration among scientists, curators, conservators, and students. His quiet demeanor belied his great productivity; the quality and quantity of analyses he carried out is attested by the cabinets filled with report files and by his numerous publications. Among the broad range of topics and materials he investigated were: the painting materials of Vincent van Gogh and Winslow Homer; the composition of pigments from ancient Persia and from sixteenth- to eighteenth-century house paint; and pasteprints. His research on illuminated Renaissance manuscripts found in the Historical Library of the University of Valencia in Spain, while he was a visiting professor at the Polytechnic University of Valencia in 1990 culminated in the bilingual book he coauthored with Salvador Muñoz Viñas, published in 1999. The materials of stone in Indian and Gothic art and in Chinese scholar’s rocks fascinated Farrell, as did the substance of Chinese ceramics and Baroque terracotta sculpture. He contributed to an eighteen-month project on the analysis of Gothic stone sculpture from New England collections, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. He also trained his analytical skills on the origins of turbidity in acrylic paints and on the metal composition of Renaissance bronze medals.

Farrell was a lecturer in history of art and architecture at Harvard University from 1984 onward, teaching courses on the “Technical Examination of Works of Art” and “The Materials of Art” and in the Harvard freshmen seminar program. His many students will remember him for his patience and courteousness: regardless of their level of scientific knowledge, they knew that they could depend on him for any help they needed. He also genuinely took pleasure in helping the Straus Center’s graduate conservation interns and fellows with their research projects and worked with them enthusiastically. Some of the projects that he oversaw were of great interest to the museum community at large. For instance, in 1984–85, under the guidance of Farrell and the center’s director Arthur Beale, Pamela Hatchfield and Jane Carpenter undertook the first major investigation of the potential effects of formaldehyde and formic acid on museum collections.

Farrell, along with Beale and a fellow conservation scientist, Richard Newman, publicized the effects of acid rain on outdoor cultural properties. He was also involved in the important two-day seminar on “The Role of Conservation and Technical Examination in the Art Museum” that was hosted in 1985 by the CCTS in conjunction with the New England Museum Association; more than a hundred participants attended the seminar. Also, in collaboration with colleagues at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, Farrell developed ways of applying atomic absorption spectroscopy instrumentation to the analysis of cultural artifacts.

At the beginning of the 1990s he oversaw the major upgrading of the Straus Center’s analytical facilities and, together with his colleagues, began creating libraries of FTIR and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectra using the Forbes Pigment Collection and the Gettens Collection of Binding Media and Varnishes. He also oversaw a new internship in conservation science and, more recently, the first Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellowship in conservation science at the center—a program initiated in 2002.

After a brief break from museum work following his retirement, Farrell worked on a part-time basis on a range of analytical projects at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, collaborating anew with his former colleague Newman, who is now head of the MFA’s Scientific Research Department.

Farrell always had a dual interest in science and art. Throughout much of his adult life he took courses in art history, languages, and history. He played the guitar and studied instrument making at the Museum of Fine Art’s antique instruments collection, building several guitars and a lute. Farrell also obtained a certificate in the art of hand-wrought ironwork, of which he was very proud. His interests ranged beyond science and art—particularly to all matters Gaelic. The Farrell ancestors had come from the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland before they settled in what is now West Virginia. He took numerous trips back to the old homeland starting in 1968, both with his family and with study groups, and he also studied Gaelic assiduously at the Harvard Extension School. It is in Ireland that he and his family made the acquaintance of—and fell in love with—Irish wolfhounds. They adopted their first one from a shelter in 1982. Farrell was an indefatigable student to the end: in addition to other courses, he was giving himself a self-tutorial on quantum physics in the period before he died.

Gene Farrell is survived by his wife Lynne Breda Farrell, his son Eugene Thoralf, and his dog Owen (Gaelic for Eugene)—the latest in a long line of rescued Irish hounds. Gene will be greatly missed and remembered by all who had the very good fortune to spend time with him.

Filed under: Obituaries