Inch by Inch, Revealing the Cavendish Portraits

Cleaning a painting can be easy, or it can be a patience-trying, soul-searching slog. Conservation treatment holds the promise of new insight and the reclaiming of past glories, but invariably cleaning reveals old damage, the insults of time and circumstance, and the reason for past restorations.

If we are going to invest the time and resources to fully conserve a work of art, we want to be sure the work is worth the effort. Is the painting worthy of the time and resources? Are we learning anything about the painting, the artist, or the subject? Is the original in good enough condition to reveal it, or is the damage too severe?

The NCMA portraits of Lord and Lady Cavendish by Paul van Somer have rarely left the gallery walls in the past few decades. They are considered key works in our collection, holding an important place as good early portraits and favorites of our Education Department. The Cavendish family was prominent in early 17th-century England. Our Lord William was a leading member of court society, a member of Parliament, and a close friend of King James I. After William’s untimely death from “overindulgence,” his wife, Lady Christian, navigated debt and civil war to preserve the family fortunes.

Before conservation treatment: Paul van Somer, Christian, Lady Cavendish, Later Countess of Devonshire (1598—1675), and Her Daughter, 1619, oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 41 1/2 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Luther Hartwell Hodges

Before conservation treatment: Paul van Somer, William, Lord Cavendish, Later Second Earl of Devonshire (1591—1628), and His Son, 1619, oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 41 1/2 in., Gift of John Motley MoreheadWhile many paintings are attributed to Paul van Somer, only a handful are irrefutably by his hand. A Flemish portrait painter, Van Somer went to England at age 40 and quickly became a favorite of King James I and his Queen Anne of Denmark. Van Somer’s work in England formed an important transition between the stiff and formal paintings of Queen Elizabeth’s day and the more naturalistic painting realized by Van Dyck in the mid 17th century. Van Somer died at 45, leaving behind only a few documented paintings, making the NCMA’s signed and dated pair highly important to the understanding of his oeuvre.

In the natural course of events, restoration seems to happen about once every hundred years when works of art change hands, are inherited, sold, or purchased. Each cycle tends to include retouching or overpainting and the application of varnish. With time these restorations age and degrade, resulting in darkening and discoloration. As a result the quality of the artist’s work becomes harder to discern, sometimes to the point that you can’t see the original at all. Our 400-year-old Van Somers appear to have received at least three rounds of restoration. While the paintings are “readable,” we see only a suggestion of the original color and detail. A modern conservation treatment addresses this by removing all nonoriginal material to the extent possible without damaging the work of the artist.

Conservators have to proceed with great caution to avoid any damage to the original painting. The preferred route is to “unpack” the accumulated layers one by one, systematically removing them from newest to oldest. The most recent varnish and restoration paint on our Cavendish portraits was probably applied in the early 20th century, not long before they came to the Museum in the 1950s. This restoration layer was removed fairly quickly with simple mixtures of mild solvents applied with large cotton swabs.

The next layer probably dates from the 18th or early 19th century. Aging restoration materials tend to become increasingly insoluble with time. These layers follow that pattern, requiring more complex cleaning systems with stronger solvents.

Detail of child’s face, showing damage and the oldest restoration, including darkened patchy retouching on the left eye, nose, and cheeksThe third and oldest restoration lies directly on the surface of the original paint. This layer can be indirectly dated by the late 17th century cartalini or inscription in the lower corner of each portrait that was painted on top of this restoration layer. This restoration covers paint damage, losses that suggest water damage, and long creases that might occur from trauma or neglect.

This last layer of restoration proved to be very hard and insoluble, difficult if not impossible to remove with conventional cleaning methods. Conservators often avoid removing this type of restoration for fear of damaging the underlying original. But with the help of a laser invented by Duke professor and art conservator Adele De Cruz, combined with solvents and scalpels, we are able to remove this layer and reveal the underlying original colors and details. This work is performed under high magnification to ensure the original paint surface isn’t harmed. This is really slow work, a few inches a day at best.

Detail of newly discovered blue feather in Lady Cavendish’s hairWe’ve uncovered numerous fine details of Van Somers’s technique, including the beautifully painted garments and the diamond and pearl jewelry. Most exciting has been the rediscovery of the long-lost emerald green background and the blue feather in Lady Cavendish’s hair. This work is slowly changing the paintings from their overall brown appearance to the subtle but opulent red, purple, and green color scheme initially realized by the artist.

The cleaning is also revealing long scratches and numerous islands of paint loss, as well as significant abrasion and alteration from past restorations. Nevertheless, along with the reality of what the painting has lost comes the revelation of long-hidden nuance and detail, evidence of the artist’s hand that has been obscured by time and restoration. If we’ve done our job well, then we have a whole new understanding of the skill of Paul van Somer, and a better idea of what Sir William and Lady Christian really looked like.

Perry Hurt removes old treatments using a special laser invented by Duke professor and art conservator Adele De Cruz

1 thought on “Inch by Inch, Revealing the Cavendish Portraits”

  1. Outstanding, excellent description of the conservation of Somer’s portrait of Christian Cavendish, née Bruce. But who was the sitter? For a viewer unacquainted with this very important person and her husband, the text might have included information about the woman, what became of her and her daughter. I realize this text is about conservation, yet knowing about the individual is relevant and suggests why the painting is valued. Professor Karen Hearn wrote a fine account of depictions of pregnant women from the 16th century to the present. Looking at pictures in that catalog suggested to me that perhaps Christian was pregnant too. Perhaps my computer has an old program and therefore I could not play the video. I will try to locate one that that is more up-to-date. Another point is that I was looking for information about this portrait and its pendant, but could not find it on the museum’s website. If possible, could you send the name of a person whom I could contact whom I might direct queries to? I will be in England for the next month and will visit Hardwick Hall, yet again, for my research. I would appreciate further information about this picture, its provenance and so forth. Sincerely, Susan Koslow, professor emerita, CUNY, The Graduate Center and Brooklyn College

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