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‘Over-Paint Uncovered’ by Philip Mould

Fri Mar 10, 2017

Tudor monarchs rank amongst the most iconic in British history, and yet a number of important discoveries within this field have only been made in recent years. Our 2007 exhibition, Lost Faces: Identity and Discovery in Tudor Royal Portraiture - guest curated by renowned art historian, David Starkey CBE - highlighted issues surrounding the identification of the subjects portrayed as well as the artists who painted them.

The 6-18 March marks the tenth anniversary of this acclaimed exhibition and during this time we are celebrating the exhibition's legacy with the online publication of contributed essays. In Philip’s essay below, re-published here from the exhibition catalogue, he examines why it is that some sixteenth-century portraits of major figures from British history, have only recently come to light.

Over-Paint Uncovered by Philip Mould OBE

From the seventeenth century until recent decades English panel portraits were all too often treated as the poor relations within country house art collections. They were scrubbed, bashed, burnt, reduced, enlarged and even used as target practice by the very people who brought them into the world: the English upper classes. One manifestation of this neglect is the affliction of over-paint, or lavish layers of pigment added to these unfortunates by later generations to “improve” or remedy their appearances. The subsequent removal of these obscuring additions by modern restorers has given rise to some remarkable discoveries in recent years, a number of which are included in this exhibition.

The phenomenon of being partially covered by areas of later paint with the result of hiding, altering or disfiguring passages of original paint, happened more to Tudor portraits than most other genres of Western painting. Drawing upon my own experience, I can hardly remember when I last acquired a sixteenth century panel portrait in what the art world euphemistically call ‘country house condition’ that had not had its background toned or added to in some manner by a later hand. The term ‘country house’ here is also useful because it is English domestic practice that often provided the milieu for these acts of radical, albeit in some case reversible, vandalism.

In the eighteenth century these (to our eyes) often magnificent Tudor icons would have looked primitive when put beside Grand Tour European trophies brought back by the acquisitive young thrusters of their day, and it easy to imagine how they may have been sidelined or shunned into the back corridors. This attitude would have no doubt carried through to their domestic ‘keepers’ as well, who in many cases were simply the housekeepers. We know from records that the techniques of these paintings’ guardians could at the best of times be alarmingly home-spun. Hand written cleaning instructions survive advocating the use of starch (also known as blue powder) stale urine, essence of lavender, rosemary beer and the ash of burnt ivy leaves. Re-varnishing was often done with egg whites.

More challenging restoration was normally farmed out to artists who constituted the earliest ‘professional’ class of restorers. William III entrusted the ceiling painter Louis Laguerre, godson to Louis XIV, to restore Mantegna’s Triumph of Caesar in the Royal Collection. The contemporary art commentator and collector, George Vertue, tells us that tho these paintings were in a most decayed condition….yet he happily mimicked the master as to complet them to the great satisfaction of the King and all the curious.” In other words, he painted over them.

The most common reason for over-painting was to conceal damage. Flaking paint, normally caused by moisture penetrating the canvas or panel is a perennial problem with early portraits, particularly when they had been hanging in damp walled English dwellings. Today, flaking is remedied by painstakingly re-adhering the shards of paint and touching in the remaining areas of loss, but an all too common historical solution was to cover the whole area with a slap of thick paint which would both largely conceal the raised surface and bind the remaining flakes in place. Hectares of original picture surface were thus lost from view to subsequent centuries. When a localized bump, tear or loss needed to be touched-in or remedied, the response could be similarly liberal. In an attempt to conceal the touched-in area, the restorer would often apply paint around the edges of his handy-work so that it would blend in better with the rest of the picture. This might happen a couple of times every century and thus, little by little, over three or four hundred years the underlying work could disappears beneath muffling additions of later paint. The portrait of Princess Elizabeth (Cat.19) was a very graphic example of this, as was also the Circle of Holbein portrait of Henry VIII (cat.10).

Sometimes over-paint was used more brazenly to change the appearance of an object into what was sometimes perceived as a more sympathetic, coherent or desirable item. In this exhibition we have a number of examples where a later restorer has bodily changed sitters in order to make them conform to expected appearances. A slightly wane looking young Henry VIII is transformed into a majestic adult (cat.7); while Prince Arthur even had painted wooden additions to give his diminutive presence more substance (cat.6). As an art dealer specialising in English portraiture little now surprises me. I have come across cheeks that have been coloured, eyes enlarged, chins nipped and tucked, as well as the occasional amplified cleavage or cod-piece, all through the artful brush stokes of long since deceased restorers.

In the last thirty years skills and techniques in restoration have vastly improved and many of these over-painted portraits are returning to their true former guise, artistically liberated from their later incarcerations. One of the main areas of restoration development has been in the diagnostic processes that can offer the insights as to whether a picture is worth restoring in the first place (itself a costly process). The most established of these is x- ray which has been around for many years but is now offered by mobile units who will call round to restorers’ studios, thus vastly improving a once ponderous and unpredictable exercise. Twenty years ago I personally used to transport portraits and get in line at the accident and emergency departments of the local hospital to have images x-rayed, which was not without its farcical complications on busy mornings. Provided the underlying image contained sufficient amounts of lead, and the layer above not too much, x-ray has proved highly valuable in detecting crucial hidden features. Infrared analysis, now similarly more mobile and much improved through digitalization, has also proved invaluable in allowing restorers to look through pigments and read the artist’s under drawing.

Establishing the terminus post quem date of a painting – ie the earliest possible date it could have been executed - is in many instances now possible for early panel portraits. Knowledge of the history and content of pigments has greatly deepened in recent years and in many instances it has been possible to corroborate over-painted hunches by knowing when or where certain pigments first started to be used. Dating through dendrochronology (fully covered by Dr Peter Klein's contributed essay) has also advanced substantially. More precise and reliable records in tree growth rings can swiftly rule out an over-painted prospect by coming up with a felling date well after the panel was supposed to be painted! Equally it can offer powerfully supporting evidence to prove claims, and is fast becoming a standard supplementary requirement for curators and specialist dealers in this area.

The technique itself of paint removal – a remarkable and breath-taking process to observe - has been aided by this science too in a profession that has taken great academic strides in the last fifty years and prides itself on its precision, judgements and attained skills. When it comes to committing to the removal of an upper layer (a far from straightforward decision when you are dealing with more than one campaign of over-paint) samples of pigments are taken and analysed. The process is assisted throughout by an high powered microscope through which it is sometimes possible to see the different paint strata with geological clarity. The operation is performed with both solvents and scalpels and in a culture of unhurried precision that is photographically recorded at every stage. The art of restoration is to take off that which should not be there while leaving the underlying artist’s work unblemished by the process. The most enduring moments for restorers, and indeed for their clients, are when the science, knowledge, risk and intuition involved in this process successfully conjoin: those first few seconds when, from beneath a dissolved, swabbed and scalpelled surface, a previously lost face comes blinking into the light.