Before and After Conservation: Lady Dalrymple

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Posted 3rd February 2022

In our previous blog posts we have learned about the history of Lady Dalrymple (c.1851–1853) and shared an overview of the recent technical analysis carried out by our De Laszlo Paintings Conservator, Sally Marriott and Paintings Conservator, Alexandra Lawson.

See the painting on display for yourself in the G F Watts Studio at Limnerslease between 1 - 7 February, before the artwork goes out on national and international loan. Read on to find out more about the conservation of this painting with our De Laszlo Paintings Conservator, Sally.

Here, I would like to provide some insight into the conservation treatment of the paint surface, the canvas support and the frame, prior to the portrait of Lady Dalrymple travelling to the Royal Academy of Arts on loan and then on to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, USA.

As part of the loan process here at Watts Gallery, all paintings are first examined on the wall, in store or within the David Pike Conservation Studio. This examination consists of a condition checking process, in order to assess and determine the suitability of the requested work/s to travel. Changing the environmental conditions that a painting has become used to and subjecting it to vibrations during transportation on a truck or an aeroplane can pose significant risks to works of art. So, it is therefore crucial that, as the gallery conservator, I am fully satisfied that all potential loans can be moved to and displayed safely within their temporary location/s.

After receiving an initial declaration of interest for Lady Dalrymple to travel to Washington, the work was taken from the main gallery wall to the conservation studio for full examination and condition checking. This process highlighted several issues, which required addressing in the canvas, the paint surface and the frame.

Structurally the canvas was thankfully in adequate condition, considering its age. The canvas tension was reasonable and the wooden stretcher keys were tied and secured to the stretcher with nylon fishing line, to prevent them from coming loose, falling out and potentially causing damage during transportation. However, some historic misalignment of the stretcher, where the horizontal cross-bars are positioned has caused some tears to the canvas tacking margins, as well as additional stress tearing in the four corners. Localised tear mending was therefore required, to support the worst affected areas (Figure 1).

This was done by adhering a small strip of polyester sailcloth fabric to the canvas using a synthetic heat-set adhesive called BEVA 371. This sailcloth ‘tab’ and smaller nylon gossamer/BEVA 371 strips, function in a similar way to ‘Band-Aid’ plasters on a flesh wound: By supporting across the vulnerable canvas where it was most damaged and requires additional strength.

Surface examination in the studio also showed that the painting was very dusty, with a fine layer of particulate dirt and a more ingrained layer of grey surface grime. In order to increase the overall brightness of the paint surface, the front and back of the canvas were dry cleaned. The more stubborn, ingrained surface dirt layer was then removed using de-ionised water and cotton swabs.

Very small areas of loose paint were then secured with a synthetic conservation-grade adhesive and some gentle heat was applied to the surface with a warm spatula. This served to safely and successfully secure all areas of vulnerable paint.

Although not essential from a conservation perspective, we decided that it was a good opportunity to also adjust several darkened historic retouchings in the sky and dress. These, and several discoloured/yellowed varnish drips, visible in the white dress were incredibly unsightly, so were retouched-out using conservation-grade retouching resin, solvent and dry pigments.

Right: Yellow drips in costume. Left: Drips in UV light

In order to protect the paint surface and provide a buffer against dramatic changes in environmental conditions during transportation, we almost always fit museum glass or conservation acrylic glazing (Optium) to our paintings when they travel.

As the Lady Dalrymple was not already glazed, we decided to refit it using Optium museum acrylic and wooden spacers, to hold the glazing away from the paint surface. Optium was chosen as it offers outstanding clarity and significantly reduces reflections, in comparison to standard glass. It is also lighter, which given the large size of this painting is a significant advantage. Optium is also arguably a safer option too, as it does not shatter like glass! To protect the back of the canvas, a backboard was also fitted. (Figure 2)

Figure 2: Backboard to protect back of canvas

The final stage of treatment was to address areas of damage to the frame, where small areas of gilded plaster moulding has been lost. As you can see (Figures 3 and 4), these areas were filled using a conservation-grade chalk-based filler and then retouched with watercolour. Although in time it would be nice to have these losses re-gilded, this phase of restoration to the frame allows the eye to focus on the paint surface, as opposed to the damage itself. This in my mind is always what I aim to achieve with any restoration.