Quietly tucked away on the third floor of the Boston Public Library's main branch overlooking Copley Square in Boston's Back Bay is an artwork of great significance—a cycle of murals titled “Triumph of Religion” painted from 1895 to 1916 by American painter John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). Although perhaps best known for his society portraits, Sargent considered these murals his greatest work. Controversial in its day for its frank depiction of Judaism and Christianity and its depiction of religious subjects in a nonreligious public place, most present-day Bostonians are not aware that this masterwork is in their midst. But that is all about to change, thanks to the culmination of the restoration and relighting of the Sargent Gallery.
A 20-year process overseen by Boston-based architecture firm Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbot (SBRA) along with myriad historic preservation, art, and lighting consultants, as well as lighting manufacturers specializing in restoration issues, the murals originally were commissioned when the library moved to its Copley Square location—the McKim, Mead and White–designed Italinate-style building on Boylston Street in 1895. In 2003–04, the murals underwent the final phase of an artistically significant restoration, which included the close examination of the three-dimensional relief elements. In 2005, the gallery's daylighting and electric lighting strategies were revisited.
Employing techniques innovative for his time, Sargent combined relief materials such as plaster, papier-mâché, metalwork, stencils, and patterned cutouts with jeweled glass stones and Lincrusta-Walton, a corrugated commercial wallcovering. Originally, viewing of the murals relied heavily on natural light coming through three large skylights and a few decorative sconces that were designed by Sargent for the library. “The main problem with Sargent's design was that there was simply not enough light in the space to effectively see the murals—even during the day,” explains lighting designer Justin Brown, an associate at Cambridge, Mass.–based Lam Partners, who oversaw the lighting restoration strategy for the gallery.
After several previous failed attempts by the library to upgrade the lighting—politics, budget, and the difficulties of wiring the gallery with modern techniques while preserving the architectural integrity of the space were all obstacles—it was decided that a period-style custom torchière outfitted with contemporary lighting technology should be positioned in the gallery to enhance the viewing experience of the murals. Improving the lighting also would allow the library to use the gallery to its full potential by providing amplified light levels for tours and evening events such as cocktail parties and fundraisers. “It was a grand space that they couldn't really use before,” Brown says. “It was important that the new lighting look like it belonged.”
While Lam designed the optical portion of the torchière, the aesthetic direction came from SBRA, which created a design that is sympathetic to the context of the gallery and its turn-of-the-century style. “Conceptually, Shepley's design goal was to create a fixture that was not so much ‘in' the space, as ‘of' the space,” explains Joseph Bille, senior associate at SBRA, who oversaw the design of the torchières. “We used the Sargent murals themselves as a guide and source of inspiration.”
Each of the four 8-foot-tall custom torchières is constructed out of cast bronze, stone, and a large glass bowl that contains an array of four to five individually circuited and aimable 250W PAR38 halogen lamps (depending on the location in the gallery.) Several on-site mock-ups determined the overall height of the torchière and the size of the bowl. In addition to providing adequate lighting for viewing the artwork, the issue of conservation was a top priority for the design team. The individual fixtures within the torchières are controlled with wireless remote controls that allow tour guides to scroll through five preprogrammed lighting scenes that temporarily illuminate specific murals during the course of the guide's talk. When the tour is complete, the fixtures automatically turn off to meet conservation requirements.
“The greatest challenge,” says Paul Zaferiou, principal at Lam, “was to figure out a way to cross-light the murals so there was no veiling reflection.” Supplementing the new torchières is an additional layer of light provided by three different types of luminaires located in the light well above the skylights. These include 70W PAR30 metal halide fixtures with a tight spot beam to light the stairs for emergency egress, as well as 250W PAR38 halogen fixtures to illuminate the lower murals. Additionally, 70W T6 metal halide fixtures are aimed at the sidewalls of the light wells to bounce light off the surfaces and to give the illusion of more daylight.
Small in square footage but complex in scope, the project involved layering over and tying into multiple existing and poorly documented building systems. The result is a lighting strategy that successfully introduces modern technology into an architecturally significant space and provides Bostonians and visitors alike the opportunity to see the beauty of Sargent's masterpieces in a whole new light.
Project Renovation and relighting of the John Singer Sargent Gallery, Boston Public Library, Boston
Client The Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston
Architect Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott, Boston
Lighting Designer Lam Partners, Cambridge, Mass.
Photographer Ian Allen, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Manufacturers / Applications
Creative Light Source Four custom torchières are cast, hand-rubbed bronze, with cast glass bowl and stone bases
Edison Price PAR30 metal halide spot fixtures to light the stair from the skylight cavity
Lutron Wireless lighting control system
Pinnacle Architectural Lighting 70W T6 metal halide floodlights in the skylight cavity