PEABODY — Before he gave this city its name, George Peabody gave its library a portrait of himself.
He traveled from England back to his hometown, then called South Danvers, to present it in 1866. And since then, it has been on display in the Peabody Institute Library on Main Street.
"It's a very unique portrait," said Nancy Barthelemy, the library's archivist. "It's basically priceless. We could never replace it."
The portrait, however, is dying. It is dirty, torn, scraped and cracking. Its carved and gilded Louis XV-style frame is chipped and obscured by a layer of bronze paint.
It will cost nearly $70,000 to restore it, and the city is considering using $56,000 in Community Preservation Act money to cover most of the cost. The City Council is expected to vote on the appropriation Thursday.
Including the frame, the portrait measures 9 feet 10 inches by 6 feet 7 inches. When researching its history, Barthelemy discovered that it is not a standard oil painting. It is actually a painting done on top of a photograph of Peabody.
"Nobody here knew about that," Barthelemy said. "It was a surprise to all of us."
The portrait began as a small negative that was magnified and projected, with the help of a solar camera, onto photo-sensitive paper. The life-size image was then "overpainted" by an artist.
It was a method that was practiced briefly, about two decades, and abandoned in the 1870s, Barthelemy said.
"It was an unusual process even then," she said.
Peabody had English photographer John Jabez Edwin Mayall photograph him and hired Queen Victoria's court painter Aed Arnoult to complete the portrait. He then commissioned two copies to be made. One was given to the Peabody Institute of Baltimore in 1867, the other to the Peabody Institute Library of Danvers in 1868.
"The portrait is an irreplaceable artifact representing the benefactor's enduring legacy in Peabody," Heather Leavell, curator of the Peabody Historical Society & Museum, said in a letter in support of the restoration. "(It) will improve public access to, and appreciation of, this portrait, which was George Peabody's intention."
The council's Finance Committee approved the use of CPA money for the project last Thursday.
"It's basically what the CPA was designed for," Chairman Dave Gamache said. "It provides money to create or restore things that we otherwise couldn't have afforded."
Community Preservation Act money is derived from a 1 percent surcharge on Peabody taxpayers and state funding. At least 10 percent of the money raised must go to each of three specified purposes: purchasing open space and encouraging recreation, helping make housing affordable, and preserving local history.
In addition to salvaging the portrait, the committee voted in favor of spending $35,000 in CPA money for a new playground at Burke School and $11,500 for a Revolutionary War Monument near the Northshore Mall trailhead of the Peabody bikeway.
The portrait has been transported to an art conservationist in Bedford, the frame to a restorer in Harvard.
They wait there for the council's authorization to spend CPA money. The library's foundation will pay for whatever it doesn't.
The most expensive component of the restoration, an estimated $47,000 worth of it, is the frame. It was hand-carved and gilded in a manner that is no longer practiced, according to Barthelemy. Peabody chose it specifically for the portrait.
He was known as the "Father of Modern Philanthropy," and his generosity made an impact all over the world. The portrait is the only one the city has of him, said Bill Power, chairman of the Community Preservation Committee.
When all the work is done, it will return to its spot in the library's elevator lobby.
"It's a treasure because the city's named after him," Barthelemy said. "You would hate to see it continue to deteriorate."