A Sweet (and Sparkly!) Canvas

June 28, 2016 Amanda Norman

By Amanda Norman, University Archivist

A few weeks ago, we found a most unusual specimen among the records of W.R. White, Baylor president from 1948-1961. Museum studies graduate student Valencia Johnson is processing this collection, and she was surprised to find a portrait of White—painted on a block of sugar!

Sugar portrait of Baylor President W.R. White, 1956

Imagine pulling this out of a box! This artifact is part of BU records: Office of the President, Chancellor and President Emeritus (W.R. White) #BU/142.

Fortunately, I immediately knew its context. Before coming to The Texas Collection, I was a writer in University Development and went to the home of Jerry and Mary Marcontell to interview them for Baylor’s planned giving newsletter. Jerry was a key member of the 1957 Sugar Bowl team, and hanging on a wall in their house was a portrait of him on a block of sugar—one was presented to each athlete.

And apparently, administrators got them, too! Since becoming University Archivist, I had remembered that sugar portrait and rather hoped that no one would bring one to us. Cultural heritage professionals prefer not to have food in the stacks, both because it can invite critters who are detrimental to the records and because, well, food isn’t meant to last that long and thus is hard to preserve. But, it turned out that we already had White’s portrait in the house, tucked away in an unassuming archival box for decades. (We hadn’t found it before because the collection was restricted till just recently. Now, maybe we should inspect other old accessions to see what other surprises lurk…)

Fortunately, whatever they did to that sugar to prepare it for painting, it must have also deterred ants, roaches, and other insects who love sugar. There are a few baby roaches who appear to have met their demise in what looks like a tape frame around the object. (I’ve taken a picture of this but am told it’s rather unappetizing, so we’ll spare you.) There otherwise is not too much evidence of nibblings. It has lasted this long—almost 60 years now—and quite frankly, is an amazing object, so we decided to investigate ways to preserve the portrait.

White-Sugar Portrait-Angle

From an angle, you can really appreciate the sparkly canvas. (And see the crack that has formed.)

At this point, in email consultation with some archivists and conservators, there seems to be consensus that the primary threat to this item is water and moisture. Fortunately, while maintaining humidity in our stacks, especially in the summer, is a constant struggle, it’s not nearly as humid here as in a coastal area, so that will help. We are investigating housing possibilities, likely a custom box with rigid support (to prevent future cracks) and desiccants (to prevent moisture build-up). And we’ll definitely keep a close eye on bug traps around it to make sure it’s not attracting anything! (Many thanks to Susan Russick, Karen Pavelka, Suzy Morgan, and other conservation/preservation specialists who have weighed in on our piece.)

We’d love to hear if any other archives, museums, or other repositories have a sugar portrait in their holdings and how you’re going about preserving it. From the research we’ve done, it sounds like the Sugar Bowl had these portraits created for at least 10 years, so there must be more out there! Also, the enclosure and support of the portrait has a stamp for Krauss Co. Ltd., which from some quick Googling tells us was a New Orleans department store—perhaps the sugar artist was housed there?

We can’t afford to take in additional sugar portraits—one is enough for research value and display, and we can’t afford all of the custom boxes and space it would take to preserve them. However, we’re delighted to have found this artifact—and with a few months to spare before the 60th anniversary of Baylor’s appearance in the Sugar Bowl!


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