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Joseph Loxton Rawbon, the "Master Restorer"

Cyndie Lack


Joseph Loxton Rawbon arrived in Canada during the intense commercial and industrial growth of the Victorian era.  A colourful character with bombastic flair, his numerous enterprises, however limited in their success, exemplify the boundless optimism of the Industrial Age and open a small window onto the history of Toronto's early cultural development through to the Second World War.  Remarkably, Rawbon believed that, like his artist's stretchers and other inventions, the restoration of paintings held a key to the making of a fortune.

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1The ambitions of Joseph Loxton Rawbon (1855-1942) were as broad and expansive as the greatest nineteenth century industrialists, but fame and fortune remained elusive in all his enterprises: gunsmith, photographer, inventor, restorer, artist, art collector and art dealer. Born in South Africa, he spent his childhood in England and moved to Canada in 1870.

From Guns to Paintings?

  • 1  Rawbon vs. Rawbone:   Born Joseph Loxton Rawbone, Joseph later used the more genteel name Rawbon, (...)

2Joseph Loxton Rawbon(e)1 began his working life as a gunsmith in Toronto. His father, a gunsmith and inventor named William George Rawbone, first established a gun-making firm in Cape Town, South Africa around 1852. After he sold his second facility in Birmingham, England, William opened the Canadian store in 1870, offering a variety of firearms, firearms repair, gun implements, and sporting goods such as ice skates. Both father and son patented a number of devices, together and separately. Some patents related to the gun and sporting goods business, while others, such as the artist's stretcher patents, were unrelated. As might be expected of gunsmiths, a device fashioned from metal was typically involved. In 1877, Joseph assumed management of the business, which went into receivership by 1883.

3During this initial period in Toronto, Rawbon served with the Governor General's Body Guard, a prestigious cavalry regiment, and met British nobleman John Campbell, Marquis of Lorne, Queen Victoria's son-in-law, and then Governor General of Canada (1878-1883). When Lorne later became the Duke of Argyll, Rawbon named Lorne as his patron, an act that typifies Rawbon's exaggerated or even false claims made in the service of self-promotion.

4Upon returning to England in 1889, Rawbon focused on painting but added art restoration to his list of occupations. Niagara Falls and River were the subject of his panorama paintings shown in several British cities in 1890-91. Niagara was by no means a novel subject; the hugely successful panorama exhibition by Paul-Dominique Philippoteaux and Adrian Schulz, billed simply as "Niagara in London," had made its debut in 1888. Rawbon's Niagara project is an early indicator of the scale of his ambition (his "Niagara in Manchester" featured 30 paintings, each measuring 200 square feet/18.6 square meters) and the bold, showman-like promotional style he would repeatedly employ.

5After returning to Canada in 1908, Rawbon continued with painting and art restoration along with a variety of pursuits. He primarily worked in Toronto, though he also kept a studio in Kingston, Canada for some years following the First World War. Rawbon's military connections appear to have served him well in garnering support for painting and restoration commissions. Well overage for active duty in the First World War, a posting for "special depot duty" allowed him to work as a painter at a military camp, and he received a military pension.

The Edison Connection and Glow-in-the-Dark Paintings

6One fascinating connection is Rawbon's association with William Symes Andrews, an electrical engineer and pioneer employee of Thomas Alva Edison. Andrews was Rawbon's teacher at "Daniel Cuzner's Classical and Commercial School" in Beckington, England. Joseph's boyhood education must have spurred his youthful imagination and catalyzed an interest in technology and invention. With its backyard foundry and workshop of scientific instruments, the school was a natural choice for the son of a gunsmith and inventor. In 1876, Joseph and his gunsmith father were exhibitors at the Philadelphia International Exhibition, where Edison was also an exhibitor.

7Andrews' 50-year service with Edison began at the Menlo Park (New Jersey) laboratory in 1879. In Edison's Schenectady laboratory, Andrews explored his fascination with luminescence, including radioluminescence. The Rawbon family memoir indicates that Andrews sent Joseph luminescent pigments, and Rawbon produced at least two large paintings using luminescent pigments: "The Virgin" with her glow-in-the dark halo, documented in a 1914 newspaper advertisement, and "Christ in Gethsemane" (1934), which remains at First Baptist Church in Toronto.

The Rawbon Process and Patents

8Rawbon attached a label to the paintings he restored, identifying himself as "THE MASTER RESTORER." This description also appeared in his letterhead and other brochures. The restoration labels make his work readily identifiable to collectors and conservators today. Sequentially numbered, the label states that the painting was 'restored by THE RAWBON PROCESS,' referring to a varnish removal method.

9Rawbon's alarming methods and attitudes are evident in the photo album of his treatments, housed in the J.L.Rawbon Fonds, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (Fig. 1). The proprietary element of the Rawbon Process was the solvent blend, which he never documented, but he later described the application method in his promotional booklet "The Art of Restoration and Its Revolution," ca. 1923. Solvent was applied through the back of the painting, and he claimed that his method was so safe that the painting could be left soaking in solvent for days with no effect on the paint. He even claimed that the resin-type and age of the varnish did not affect the success of his process, cautioning only against the use of his method for paintings with a resinous paint component.

Fig. 1. A page from J.L. Rawbon's photographic album

Fig. 1. A page from J.L. Rawbon's photographic album

The caption reads "Actual weight of varnish removed 7 oz. The fact that this mass of varnish could be liquefied at one operation without touching the paint, and removed in bulk, proves beyond all question all I claim for my process," referring to "The Rawbon Process."

Credits: Courtesy of Art Gallery of Ontario E.P. Taylor Research Library and Archives, J. Loxton Rawbon Fonds SC099.

10While he remains an obscure figure, as an inventor he is more uniquely placed among artist-restorers of this period. Rawbon's earliest stretcher device (Fig. 2), the "Rawbone Keyless Stretcher" (1886) was closely modeled on another artist-inventor's patent, that of American Aaron Draper Shattuck, who claimed patent infringement by Rawbon. None of Rawbon's stretcher patents appear to have achieved the financial success and popularity of the Shattuck patent or various other stretcher patents of this period.

Fig. 2.  Rawbon’s keyless stretcher

Fig. 2.  Rawbon’s keyless stretcher

Rawbon’s keyless canvas stretcher device, patented 1886.

Credits: Cyndie Lack.


11Collectors and art conservators may encounter Rawbon's stretchers, paintings, or his label-identified restoration work. His distinctive metal "keyless stretcher" devices were used both on his own paintings and those he restored. Rawbon's stretcher patents reflect a preoccupation with simplicity and ease of use by the artist; there was no apparent application of the restorer's specialized knowledge to improve the painting's long-term support and condition.

12Although Rawbon refers to his process as one "guided by scientific laws," his claims for the process are steeped in the vernacular of patents, not science. Consistent with the advertising jargon and hyperbole of the day, his representations may have met with comparatively little skepticism in an era of boundless optimism over the latest scientific discovery or newly-patented, miraculous process. His client base included members of Toronto and Montreal's social elite, themselves art collectors and supporters of early Canadian arts organizations. Rawbon's income-generating initiatives and his business, social and religious connections with prominent artists, curators, entrepreneurs, military and government officials offer revealing insights for historians, curators, and conservators alike.

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1  Rawbon vs. Rawbone:   Born Joseph Loxton Rawbone, Joseph later used the more genteel name Rawbon, presumably to reflect his social and professional aspirations. Loxton was the maiden name of Rawbon's mother.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1. A page from J.L. Rawbon's photographic album
Caption The caption reads "Actual weight of varnish removed 7 oz. The fact that this mass of varnish could be liquefied at one operation without touching the paint, and removed in bulk, proves beyond all question all I claim for my process," referring to "The Rawbon Process."
Credits Credits: Courtesy of Art Gallery of Ontario E.P. Taylor Research Library and Archives, J. Loxton Rawbon Fonds SC099.
File image/jpeg, 60k
Title Fig. 2.  Rawbon’s keyless stretcher
Caption Rawbon’s keyless canvas stretcher device, patented 1886.
Credits Credits: Cyndie Lack.
File image/jpeg, 56k
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Electronic reference

Cyndie Lack, “Joseph Loxton Rawbon, the "Master Restorer" ”CeROArt [Online], HS | 2013, Online since 27 October 2013, connection on 16 January 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Cyndie Lack

Cyndie Lack, BFA, MAC, is a paintings conservator in private practice in Canada. Since completing an internship at the Courtauld Institute of Art, she has pursued research interests in British 19th century artists' materials and techniques, artists' colourmen and art-related technologies.,

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Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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