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American conservator from 'Monuments Men' worked at Royal Ontario Museum

The Royal Ontario Museum mural

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The Royal Ontario Museum mural "The Paradise of Maitreya," which late American art conservator George Stout helped restore in 1933, is shown in a handout photo. Stout inspired George Clooney's role in the new film "The Monuments Men." THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-ROM

TORONTO - Years before the American art conservator who inspired George Clooney's role in "The Monuments Men" risked his life to save paintings during the Second World War, he made a big impact on his profession in Toronto.

The Royal Ontario Museum says the late George Stout brought his influential techniques to its corridors in 1933 to painstakingly conserve and mount the mural The Paradise of Maitreya, which monks had rescued from a plundered temple in China.

The important wall painting, billed as "one of the best-preserved examples of its kind," is still in the ROM's Bishop White Gallery of Chinese Temple Art.

"Here he is in the ROM putting back together essentially something that was cut up to preserve it, and then he goes on about 11, 12 years later in Europe and seeks to deal with mitigating the fallout from war," says Heidi Sobol, the ROM's senior conservator of paintings.

"So it's almost as if his time here was like a harbinger of what he would go on to do."

In theatres Friday, "The Monuments Men" follows an Allied platoon of seven museum directors, curators and art historians as they rescue artistic masterpieces from Nazi thieves in Germany.

Clooney directed, wrote and co-produced the star-packed dramedy that's based on the book "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History" by Robert M. Edsel.

Clooney's character Frank Stokes is inspired by Stout, who was one of the Monuments Men from 1944 to '45.

The Iowa native served during the First World War before starting his pioneering career in art conservation.

It was summer 1933 when ROM director Charles Trick Currelly asked Stout to work on The Paradise of Maitreya, which had been urgently carved out of China's Xinghua Si Temple wall to protect it from an invading army in the village of Xiaoning in Shanxi province.

The centuries-old colour piece, measuring about six metres by 12 metres, depicts the Buddha Maitreya giving a sermon in an imagined heaven.

Stout, who was working at Harvard University at the time, was tasked with overseeing the project for the mural that had arrived at the ROM about five years earlier.

"The (fragments) arrived at the ROM in many boxes and the entire mural actually was in approximately 63 pieces," says Sobol.

"It was Stout's responsibility to conserve them, because they were fragments, they were falling apart ... and then mounting them onto the wall here."

Stout stayed in Toronto for about three months with his family and two Harvard students he'd brought along to help.

They employed a new technique "using new types of 20th-century adhesives," says Sobol.

"He was much more conscientious about consolidating, making sure it was secure and that the backing could conceivably be removable. And that's one of the underpinnings of conservation, is the concepts of removability or reversability."

Sobol says it was the first and last time Stout worked at the ROM — and in Canada, to her knowledge — but he continued to correspond with the museum to offer advice on how to deal with other murals in the same gallery.

"One of the first conservators here, William Todd, was tasked to install the other two murals and he used Stout's ... techniques to similarly mount the other ones."

Stout "was a nice guy," she adds. "His writings were very charming and he was very genteel, very comprehensive and very thorough."

After the battlefield in Europe, Stout directed the Worcester Art Museum and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Massachusetts. He also helped found the International Institute for Conservation.

He died in 1978, in Santa Clara, Calif.

"In the field of art conservation, he is perhaps one of the most fundamental figures in creating and viewing it with science and technical comprehension," says Sobol.

"With Monuments Men, he played a pivotal role in that organization for the U.S. Army. His methodologies really provided the backbone for a lot of 20th century — North American specifically — instruction in a comprehension of conservation."

Sobol says she and her fellow conservators at the ROM plan to see "The Monuments Men" together this weekend.

"We've been really excited about this because conservators, it's not a very well-known profession and it's wonderful to see it play such a big role in a movie."

"We're going to blog about it, because this is the big time for us, to see our profession essentially highlighted like this," she adds.

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