A Hair-Raising Experience

Despite the frightful sound of this article’s title, the conservation treatment of the NCMA’s Portrait of Sir John Scott, which I finished in November, went quite smoothly. The painting is now refreshed and as near to its former glory as possible. But as frequently happens during a full restoration, little details of the original painting were uncovered that supply interesting insight—in this case, on the intriguing human infatuation with hair.

The conservation treatment removed centuries of accumulated dust and grime as well as layers of old varnish and previous restoration. Cleaning was followed by the application of new varnish and judicious retouching to cover up small paint losses and minor damage. Even the smallest original brushstroke and surviving nuance has become visible again: the rich fabric of the gold and black garments, the luster of the unusual wood-grain floor, the rosy flesh tones, and the sparkle in Sir John’s eyes.

Sir John’s hair was already an impressive sight before treatment, but with the removal of old restoration paint, his coif was revealed to be yet another inch taller. This high rooster-tail ‘do truly defies gravity. “You need a product for that,” observed Dr. Tania String, art history professor at UNC–Chapel Hill. Sir John must have used some kind of Elizabethan mousse made of starch, gum, or wax. Maybe he used this concoction found in the Manual of Women in which is contained many and diverse very good recipes,” an anonymous 16th-century Spanish cookbook.

Unction for combing hair: Two pounds of very fat and very well-blended bacon cut into small pieces. And put it in a stew-pot, put with it a fourth part of head lye and four  maravedís of alhovas, and a fourth of linseed, and a fourth of barberry, and a (fourth) of calamus gum, and another (fourth) of bastard saffron (safflower), and another (fourth) of rough cumin. Put the stew-pot on the fire with all these things, and once the bacon comes apart, strain it with another large stew-pot and throw in three or four lizards. And put the lid on the stew-pot very well. Cook it in the oven and, when cooked, strain it and keep it in a bottle. And comb your hair with it.

Hair must be one of the oldest human fascinations. Hairstyle can be an important visual cue of professional, religious, or political affiliation, personal expression, or just a very loud fashion exclamation. What comes to mind when you see a mullet, dreadlocks, skinhead, French twist, Afro, Mohawk, flat top, bouffant, payot, butch, corn rows, duck’s ass, fade, topknot, comb-over, pigtails, beehive, pompadour, quiff, or bob?

During much of the 16th century, English men followed the French fashion of closely cropped hair. But in Elizabethan times young, ambitious English men increasingly grew their hair out in long manes or pushed it up high, sometimes with long, curling lovelocks on one shoulder. Leading the crowd was the Earl of Southampton, who traveled in the same circles as our Sir John.

Elizabethans saw hair not only as an indicator of taste and social and economic status but also as a window to the true nature within. Not that this was an exact science. The interpretations were always changing for the vast variety of styles, colors, and types of hair. But as Mark Albert Johnston points out in his book Beard Fetish in Early Modern England: Sex, Gender, and Registers of Value, some opinions seem to have been fairly common for both the wearer and the observer.

Johnston says brown hair, like Sir John’s, was regarded as the most trustworthy hue, signifying stability, honesty, and faithful devotion, all the most desirable traits of English manhood. Johnston also tells us that hair dyeing was common, which would seem to reduce the trustworthiness of any hair color, not to mention the person wearing it.

Men’s beards were particularly indicative. First off it was essential to have a beard to prove “manliness.” Of Johnston’s four basic categories of beard, Sir John’s most closely resembles the “spade beard” often worn by soldiers. Supposedly the spade shape would remind enemies of the burial that awaited them. Sir John was a professional soldier, knighted about age 24, and saw action in Flanders, France, and Ireland. Sir John’s beard also resembles Johnston’s “broad beard,” which signified high professional, intellectual, and economic status. Educated at Hart Hall, Oxford, Sir John served as a member of Parliament for many years and controlled vast Scott family estates. We can also see that Sir John’s beard is somewhat thin but well trimmed and tidy. Beards like this required time and money to maintain and were indicative of gentlemen with money and leisure time to spare.

People say, “Clothes make the man,” but surely hair, which is literally part of our bodies, must be much more informative of our true selves—except, of course, when it is dyed, cut, styled, curled, straightened, sprayed, unctioned, conditioned, Jheried . . .

Perry Hurt is associate conservator at the NCMA.


  1. Caroline
    Posted February 10, 2014 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    What an interesting concoction for hair styling! (Must be a pain to wash out.) I’m not sure I’d want my hair to smell like bacon, though. I think I’ll read the ingredients on my hair products when I get home…

  2. Posted March 18, 2014 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Congratulations- The old portrait and your restoration, together, are one beautiful piece of work. Too bad in a way, I haven’t the patience to paint in such deep detail. Nor my subjects the patience to sit for it. There are other things to do these days.

  3. Bryan
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Greetings Perry from a former Etherington person, now at U of MD Libraries. What an amazing portrait & recently I read, who knows where, a receipt for a hair treatment that involved fat, but instead of whole lizards, you cut the heads off & squeezed the lizard juice into the mix. Haven’t tried it yet… Bryan

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