The Wallace Collection is perhaps best known for its paintings, particularly the iconic Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals, and Fragonard’s The Swing. For this month’s Fundraising Focus, we explore how we keep our paintings looking their best, and what is involved in the conservation process. Conserving a painting to restore it to its original glory is an exciting but expensive and very labour-intensive job, and if you are able to help us by donating online via The Big Give we would be very grateful for your support.
About every five years our curators and conservators conduct a condition survey of all the paintings in the collection, and, every ten years, of all the miniatures. From the findings of this survey they draw up a list of candidates for conservation treatment. Naturally, there are a lot more paintings in need of attention than we have the time or money to work on, so this list represents the priorities that require most urgent treatment.
The Wallace Collection is fortunate to have a Conservation Studio, where experts work on items from our French 18th-century furniture and princely arms and armour collections, but we are not able to carry out painting conservation on site. In the case of our Reynolds research project, our paintings are being conserved at the National Gallery’s Conservation Department. Great care is taken to make sure that only small numbers of paintings are off-site at any given time, to ensure our visitors have access to as many paintings as possible.
We are currently leading the Sir Joshua Reynolds Research Project, an international scholarly endeavour which seeks to explore Reynolds’s working methods and materials and to assess how best to clean and conserve his paintings. Reynolds’s artistic approach was often experimental, and in addition to using traditional painting materials he also used substances such as wax, which are much more problematic from a conservation point of view! There are eleven Reynolds paintings in the Wallace Collection, and we try to ensure that only 2-3 are not on view at any given time. We are generously supported in this project by The Charles Hayward Foundation and The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.
Once the paintings arrive at the National Gallery, images are taken using high-res digital photography, x-radiography, and infrared reflectography. The paintings then undergo further examination with a binocular microscope and using UV light. These are all non-invasive techniques, but can yield a huge amount of new information. For example, they can reveal changes in the pose of the sitter: In the painting of Mrs Mary Nesbitt, it was discovered that the sitter’s right hand had originally been shown resting on her shoulder; it was only later that a dove was added, with Mrs Nesbitt’s hand gently cradling it.
Taking very small samples and mounting them as cross-sections reveals the layers of paint, and can also show individual layers of varnish which have been applied to paintings in the decades and centuries after their completion. These layers of varnish often discolour and darken over time, and significantly alter the appearance of the painting they were designed to preserve. Varnish can have a darkening effect, or add a dingy yellow tone to a painting, and tiny cracks in varnish layers can diffuse light and make the painting appear flat and lifeless. Painstakingly removing this varnish restores paintings’ luminosity and depth.
Conserving our world-famous collection of paintings is an on-going and essential task. If you would like to support us in this work you can do so by donating online via The Big Give, or call the Development team on 020 7563 9558 for more information on how you can support the Wallace Collection. Thank you very much.