Paintings Conservation

English Heritage is responsible for the care and conservation of 1,300 paintings and their frames and 15 in situ painted decorative schemes on wood, paper or canvas. Most are located in our London properties and include key moments in western art history, such as The Waterseller of Seville by Velázquez at Apsley House, and Rembrandt’s late Self Portrait and Vermeer’s Guitar Player at Kenwood.

Paintings Conservation – Behind the Scenes

With 1,300 artworks in properties throughout the country, English Heritage’s paintings conservators have their work cut out. Delve behind the scenes and discover how they maintain and protect our fine art collection both on site and in the studio. See the skill, passion and dedication that goes into this conservation work, and find out more about some of the items in our collection.

The Vegetable Seller

Previously in very poor condition, a painting we call The Vegetable Seller had been languishing in the back of a store room at Audley End for over 40 years – its history almost completely lost.

The newly cleaned painting has now been returned to display at Audley End for the first time in decades. With new conservation work, technical analysis and research, we have been able to uncover some of the secrets of the painting. 

Learn more about The Vegetable Seller and its conservation journey.

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Restoring Titian's Orpheus

In Ancient Greek mythology, Orpheus was a musician so talented that his music could enchant all living things. In Titian’s Orpheus Enchanting the Animals from the Wellington Collection at Apsley House, Orpheus is shown surrounded by all kinds of animals who have gathered to hear him play the lira da bracchio (a bowed string instrument). His divine music even brings together the Lion and the Unicorn who were traditionally seen as enemies.

During recent conservation work, Titian’s painting underwent important technical analysis including x-ray and infrared as well as careful cleaning and retouching, to restore as much of Titian’s original intentions as possible. Learn more about the Orpheus myth and go behind the scenes during the conservation of this painting.

A Botticelli revealed

In 2019, two years of careful research and conservation by English Heritage experts came to fruition when a painting formerly believed to be by a copyist of Botticelli was revealed to have come from the studio of the man himself.

The works of Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, known to us as Sandro Botticelli, were so popular during his lifetime and beyond that copies were common, with fans ordering detailed replicas of his work from other talented artists.

That was what was believed to have been the case here, but close study including comparison visits to a similar work in the Uffizi in Florence, X-rays, infrared scans and even scrutiny of the panel's wood and paint suggested that this beautiful artwork, on display at Ranger's House in Greenwich, is from the workshop of Botticelli himself. 

Explore more of the Wernher Collection at Ranger's House
‘Titian’s Mistress’ 1550–60 (Wellington Collection, Apsley House, English Heritage) shown after conservation
© Historic England. English Heritage Trust

Conserving Titian’s Mistress

We undertake technical investigation of our paintings to support their conservation and presentation. This has enabled some exciting discoveries and revealed new insights into the attribution and history of works in our collection.

One such moment was the discovery of a signature and a hidden painting underneath Titian’s Mistress, a work in the collection at Apsley House, which came to the conservation studio for treatment in 2012. The findings have challenged the current attribution of the painting.

Read more about Conserving Titian's Mistress

A Huysmans Restored

In 2018, a 17th-century painting by Jacob Huysmans was returned to its ancestral home, Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, after conservation. 

Huysmans (c.1633–1696) was one of the most sought-after artists of his day for aristocratic females seeking a portrait painter. His group portrait of three sisters, Jemima, Airmine and Elizabeth Crewe, was painted in about 1682. Jemima took it with her to Wrest Park when she married Henry Grey, Duke of Kent. The painting then remained at Wrest for more than two centuries before the house and its contents were sold in 1917. But it was given to English Heritage in 2016, after nearly a century in private hands. 

It took about 300 hours to conserve the picture, which was in poor condition with a heavily discoloured and dirty varnish layer that disguised some elements of the composition. Once it was removed, the bright and vivid colours for which Huysmans was famous were revealed in all their glory. 

Discoveries at Audley End

Recent investigations into the 16th- and early 17th-century paintings at Audley End revealed significant new insights. Twenty-one portraits were examined with scientific techniques including x-radiography, infra-red reflectography, microscopy and dendrochronology to investigate attribution, more accurate dating and to help consider the true identity of the sitters.

Exciting highlights of the research include the painting out of a scandalous décolleté and jewels of a renowned beauty, a microscopic face hidden in an astrological symbol and a mysterious second portrait beneath an image of Henry, Prince of Wales.

An early 17th-century portrait of Lady Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset (1590/91–1632), by an unknown artist. The infra-red image (right) shows the heart-shaped pearl drop necklace that was over-painted
An early 17th-century portrait of Lady Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset (1590/91–1632), by an unknown artist. The infra-red image (right) shows the heart-shaped pearl drop necklace that was over-painted

Scandalous Fashion

X-radiography was carried out on a 17th-century portrait of Lady Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset. It revealed that the countess, a renowned beauty, was originally painted with a fashionable low-cut neckline and wheel ruff. This was later changed to a higher round neckline with standing ‘fan’ ruff.

The use of infra-red reflectography also enabled researchers to discover a now over-painted heart-shaped pearl drop necklace. This was perhaps symbolic of the sitter’s turbulent love life.

The portrait of Henry, Prince of Wales (1594–1612), after Robert Peake the Elder, c.1606
The portrait of Henry, Prince of Wales (1594–1612), after Robert Peake the Elder, c.1606, with the upside down portrait beneath it revealed by x-ray on the left
© National Portrait Gallery, London

A Mystery Sitter

X-radiography was carried out on a portrait of Henry, Prince of Wales (1594–1612). The technology revealed that underneath the prince lies an earlier portrait, upside down and possibly of Lucy Harrington, a 17th-century courtier and patron of the arts.

In order to date the painting, researchers employed a combination of dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) of the English oak panel and examination of an earlier inscription visible only in x-radiography.

It’s believed that the panel was first painted with the female sitter in 1606 and quickly over-painted, possibly because the first commission was unsuccessful.

On the left is the portrait of Henry, William or Edward Neville by Cornelius Johnson (1593–1661). To the right is a portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497–1543)
On the left is the portrait of Henry, William or Edward Neville by Cornelius Johnson (1593–1661). To the right is a portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497–1543)
© National Portrait Gallery, London (Holbein)

A Holbein Connection

Through detailed examination of the materials and techniques used to produce this spectacular portrait, researchers were able to confirm its attribution. It was painted by the English artist Cornelius Johnson.

Dendrochronology also revealed that the panel timber is cut from the same oak tree used for a famous portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger, now found in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 1727). This discovery indicates that the two studios were buying timber from the same source.

Save our Story

English Heritage has launched an appeal to support the conservation of the many wall paintings in our care. In 2019 our conservators visited sites with significant wall paintings to assess and prioritise those most in need of conservation. Due to the complex and delicate nature of these works, many are at risk of serious deterioration or even permanent loss due to factors such as climate, poor past restoration work, or the nature of the historic buildings on which they are fixed.

With the help of the public we will be able to bring in the specialist knowledge and technology required to protect the future of these precious art works. 

Read more about the Save our Story - Wall Paintings appeal
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