In January Siobhan (Project Conservator), Helen (House and Collections Manager) and Victoria our project fundraising manager, visited the studio of paintings conservator Melanie Caldwell. Melanie is carrying out a conservation trial on our Reynolds self portrait. Here is a report of the work so far:
Knole has an extremely important collection of paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds. They were collected by the 3rd Duke who was a close friend and possibly the biggest patron of Reynolds in the late 18th century. The Reynolds self portrait was probably painted in 1775 and is mentioned in the Dukes account book as being in his London residence in 1778.
The first mention of the room being known as the Reynolds Room is in 1828 when three Reynolds portraits were hung here.
Reynolds, as with many of his contemporaries had started to experiment with techniques and materials and a trip to Italy influenced him greatly. On his return he began to experiment with painting materials in an effort to emulate the brilliant colour and rich impasto of the old masters he had seen.
Reynolds took many risks combining volatile pigments, waxes and resins. The initial effects were stunning, but even during his lifetime the instability of his paintings was becoming apparent:
Carmine red pigments used to create flesh tones faded rapidly giving many of his portraits a characteristically pale appearance.
Fugitive blues and browns darkened leading to paintings that are considerably tonally different now from when they were created
Reynolds also used bitumen and waxes added into pigments and varnishes to create rich velvety dark backgrounds. Unfortunately these cause massive problems during drying resulting in deep cracks of the paint surface. There is evidence that Reynolds himself tried to restore some of his early paintings in later life. But his experiments continued and today conservation of his paintings is notoriously difficult.
Complex paint and varnish layers make any consolidation and cleaning of Reynolds paintings very difficult. There is currently a Reynolds Research Project at the Wallace Collection with a view to restoring up to 12 paintings, and Tate Britain has also carried out considerable research.
At Knole we are now looking at how we can conserve the fine collection shown in the Reynolds room. Problems with technique have been exacerbated by the poor environmental conditions at Knole and the collection is now in a fragile and unstable condition.
To plan for this work we have taken one painting to carry out a conservation trial. The Reynolds Self Portrait is currently at a conservator’s studio undergoing close examination and tests to establish a method for conservation. The Knole trial includes:
• Detailed condition assessment
• Examination under magnification and UV light
• Sampling of paint and varnish layers
• Surface cleaning and consolidation of flaking paint
• Minimal restoration and revarnishing.
The painting has a thick paste linen lining which has probably been done in the last 80 years although we have no records of this work. There has been a previous attempt at cleaning with wear visible in the face, hair and hands.
There are many clumps of old cotton wool on the surface – again evidence of previous attempts at conservation.
There is also some relatively recent retouching along the cracks in the face.
Other problems revealed, as a result of the poor environment at Knole, is mould growth, perished surface coatings and flaking paint.
Conclusions so far:
The specific problems with Reynolds technique mean that these paintings need to be considered separately to the rest of the paintings at Knole. It may not be necessary to give full conservation treatment to all the paintings in the Reynolds Room but some treatment such as cleaning and lining may be inevitable. Flaking paint must be stabilised and it must be decided what level of surface deterioration is acceptable.
1. Take 5 samples from the edges of the painting to look at cross section under magnification. This will tell us whether the background is over painted and how many varnish layers there on the surface, which will inform what cleaning is possible.
2. Medium analysis by FTIR (Fourier transfer infra red spectrometry) will inform if and how much wax or varnish was added to the paint by Reynolds. This will affect cleaning and choice of consolidant
When the analysis has been completed the painting will be surface cleaned removing the top layer of varnish to allow localised consolidation of flaking paint from the front. The painting can then undergo minimal restoration and revarnishing. Once environmental conditions have been improved within the Reynolds Room the painting can be reinstated safely and displayed once more for many years to come.