Adopting a Dulwich Picture Gallery painting

Dulwich Picture Gallery, England’s oldest art museum, 200 years old this year, has a collection which is exciting to scholarly art historians as for most of its existence it lacked the resources needed for deep research into the pictures, thus potential still remains for serious discovery, as illustrated by the article in today’s Guardian about the newly restored St Cecilia.

Philip de Loutherbourg by Gainsborough

One way of improving the quality of the collection, is the Adopt a Picture scheme: the curatorial team have a list of paintings which need restoration but the work required varies greatly: mending holes, relining a picture, replacing the stretcher, treating panels, or sometimes just a simple clean.

A painting may have languished in the store with unsightly damage from a candle singe or from damp which has caused mould to eat into the paint. Occasionally some bodger long ago has made a poor attempt at touching up a painting or the original may have been cut down or added to, in order to make a picture fit a frame. Some artists were known for using paint layers which are extremely fragile and need to be fixed before the painting disappears for ever. Other artists, most notably Sir Joshua Reynolds, experimented with varnish mixtures which caused havoc.

The cost of picture restoration – or more correctly, in art-speak, a conservation – varies: quite often an Adoption Group is formed, such as neighbours living in the same road, or a family teams up to adopt a painting in memory of a lost loved one.  For the bicentenary, the DPG Friends organisation paid for the adoption of a large picture of St. Cecilia. See this DOV article.

After conservation, the painting returns to the gallery with a display label including an acknowledgement to both those who have funded the work bringing the picture back to life, as well as, often, a remembrance of someone who has died. With graveyard space at a premium and cremation more frequent, adopting a picture can be a wonderful and lasting commemoration.

When my beloved husband, Philip, died suddenly from a heart attack travelling to work two and a half years ago, the funeral was held at Christ’s Chapel followed by a reception at the gallery where I suggested donations in his memory for the conservation of a DPG picture. The response was stupendous and paid for over a third of the cost of the restoration of an important portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), of his friend and fellow artist Philippe de Loutherbourg (1740-1812).

De Loutherbourg in turn painted a portrait of Gainsborough, now in America. Born in Strasbourg (my late husband’s maternal grandmother’s family came from that area) he became a member of the French Royal Academy, but later came to work in London for David Garrick, and then Sheridan, creating spectacular stage designs noted for amazing lighting effects; this in an age before film, carried great significance.  One of de Loutherbourg’s pupils in painting was the gallery founder, Sir Francis Bourgeois, a modest artist himself.

Like Gainsborough, De Loutherbourg was fond of painting English landscape which he extolled above any other, although he was much travelled in Europe. Famously he invented a very popular entertainment; a moving panoramic peep-show called the Eidophusikon. Later he turned more to history painting and also dabbled in faith healing. As a man of patience, innovation, enterprise, thought and energy, there seemed some resonances here for my family.

The conservation took two years and proved tricky: such a task is only entrusted to expert restorers with huge experience, who have worked on some of the nation’s most treasured museum possessions. During the restoration I was invited to visit the conservator at work from time to time, to see the progress.

The yellowed varnish was removed, as well as some old retouching. Gainsborough used especially dilute paint, which meant that under-layers can be very sensitive to cleaning so in some areas such as the face and the coat, only the mildest cleaning solution was used. The beautiful brushstrokes of the white cravat, the yellow waistcoat, and the book, and areas of the warm beige ground, were intentionally left alone. It is possible that there has been some fading in the orangey-brown coat colour and there was evidence of past trauma to the picture. This damage consisted of a hole of some 8 x 4 cms., with associated abrasion in the top right-hand corner, and possible melting of paint, as well as a mended horizontal tear of approx. 40 cms., across the lower half of the figure.

After cleaning and re-touching of the damaged areas, a decision was made to reline the painting in order partly to reduce some cracking of paint which looked sharp and was lifting in places, and also to soften some over-rigidity of the canvas. After consultation the original stretcher, on which there was an illegible old label, was re-used but proved quite an exercise. Finally there was some colour re-touching and a protective resin was applied as a fixative and varnish.

A side-effect of any restoration can be surprise discoveries at x-ray, or on examination of the paint pigment, which can uncover information such as figures added later by another hand, or a completely different painting lying hidden beneath the visible one, or sections which were painted out or altered, either by the artist or by others for all kinds of mysterious reasons. This kind of information can sometimes help solve difficult puzzles of attribution.

When I first mentioned the adoption scheme to a friend nearly twenty years ago, they asked whether it might include being allowed to borrow the painting to hang in one’s home for a short period: no such luck, of course! But to follow the intricate process, to learn more about a picture and to see the end result of the conservation work is truly fascinating and rewarding.

There are plenty more pictures at Dulwich awaiting salvation and discovery.
More info here

Mary Poole-Wilson, DPG Guide


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2 Comments

  1. I wonder whether you might add, after ‘…my beloved husband Philip’…. a link to his name which can be found on Wikipaedia or Google.

    Yours sincerely,

    Mary Poole-Wilson

  2. Ingrid 3 Apr 2012

    This has been done, Mary. Philip was an incredibly famous cardioloist both nationally and internationally. Wikipedia quote: ‘Philip Poole-Wilson can be viewed as one of the founders of modern cardiology.’

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