Van Dyck goes to Dulwich

One of our Van Dyck portraits has been loaned to the Dulwich Picture Gallery (DPG) for their exhibition ‘Van Dyck in Sicily: painting and the plague, 1624 – 2’.  The portrait of  Sofonisba Anguissola usually lives in the Leicester Gallery.  When any object leaves Knole on loan, each stage of its transport is supervised by a member of National Trust staff to make sure nothing happens to it along the way that could cause damage.  On this occasion it was Helen our House and Collections Manager.

Van Dyck portrait of the Italian artist Sofonisba Anguissola

After spending several weeks acclimatising to lower relative humidity (RH) levels in the Great Hall, in preparation for the levels of RH it will experience in the DPG, a specialist art handling company came to wrap her for transit.  The portrait was wrapped in polythene and once in the van wrapped with blankets and strapped in.

Once delivered to the DPG it was taken to the exhibition gallery and left wrapped until a National Trust courier arrived on the installation day.  The courier can be a member of the property conservation team the object has come from, the regional conservator or our Registrar that manages all object loans.  On this occasion it was me!

DPG technicians unwrap the painting.

Once the portrait was unwrapped it was examined by myself and Sophie Plender, an independent painting conservator, using its most recent condition report to check that there had been no change in the condition of the frame or painting during transit.  The frame and painting are not in great condition, although stable enough to travel and go on display.  The conclusion was that there was no change in its condition, however…

… we did discover some holes in the frame…woodworm holes!  This could be a serious problem.  If the holes are fresh new holes then the frame would have a live infestation and all the other frames in the gallery are at risk of becoming infested.

The offending woodworm holes, 2 of about 10 that we found.

Sophie and I could not find any other evidence to suggest that this was an active infestation, but you never be 100% certain.  As DPG were arranging for another painting to go for Thermo Lignum* treatment (an intensive heat treatment that will kill off the woodworm), they wanted Sofonisba to go too as a precautionary measure.  Knowing the painting was in a fragile condition, with existing paint losses, it wasn’t a decision I could make alone and needed some advice.  After several phone calls between Helen, Fernanda (the NT registrar), Siobhan (Knole’s conservator) and the NTs painting conservator, it was decided that the painting could not be treated but the frame could be.  So I asked Sophie to remove the painting from its frame, so the frame could be taken off that afternoon to go for treatment.

The frame was wrapped in polythene once more and loaded in to the art handlers van to go to Thermo Lignum.  After an exhausting morning I caught the train back to Knole.  Had the frame not had to go for treatment I would had to have witnessed the picture being hung on the wall.  However the next day Fernanda went to the DPG to see the painting and frame reunited and hung on the wall ready for the exhibition opening on the 14th February.

Emily