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 an 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.

‘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

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.

Lady Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset (1590/1-1632) Unknown Artist Early 17th century

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.

Henry, Prince of Wales (1594 - 1612) After Robert Peake the Elder c.1606
© 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.

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 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 Holbein, now found in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 1727). This discovery indicates that the two studios were buying timber from the same source.

More About Paintings Collections

  • Audley End

    Discover Audley End's painting collection, which was mostly put together by Richard, 3rd Baron Braybrooke. It contains a large number of early English portraits, as well as many Old Masters.

  • Kenwood House

    Explore Kenwood's collection, which includes internationally renowned works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Dyck, Gainsborough and Reynolds.

  • Apsley House

    Browse Apsley House's collection, the majority of came from the Spanish Royal Collection in the 19th century.

'step into englands story