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Lady Hamilton restored and rediscovered

30 March 2016 by David Crombie

Lady Hamilton's face

Detail of Lady Hamilton’s face from the painting, after conservation.

In summer 2015 Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s painting Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante from the Lady Lever Art Gallery was conserved by Kristina Mandy. Kristina joined National Museums Liverpool as a paintings conservator on a six month contract from May to November 2015. She describes her work on the painting, which you can now see back on display at the Lady Lever Art Gallery:

“During my contract at National Museums Liverpool I had the fantastic opportunity to conserve this beautiful portrait of Lady Hamilton from the early 1790s. The treatment was funded by an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, where the painting was loaned from September 2015 to January 2016 for the first retrospective in Europe of Vigée Le Brun’s work.

Before the painting could travel, several conservation issues needed to be addressed. The main concern was the raised cracking present in the paint and ground layers in the extensions to the canvas at the sides. The extensions were added during the painting process. The cracked areas of paint were very fragile, and could easily have been damaged during loan of the picture.

painting with a dirty yellow appearance

‘Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante’ by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun before conservation, showing the yellowed varnish

In addition to the cracking, the visual appearance of the painting was poor. A thick and discoloured varnish layer covered the surface of the painting and made certain passages very difficult to read. The sense of depth in the painting was lost and the yellowed nature of the varnish altered the colours significantly.

After removing the surface dirt layer, I used mixtures of solvents to remove the varnish layers. This process revealed the beautiful bright colours of the painting, the relatively thin brushwork overall, and the great detail and attention paid to the figure of Lady Hamilton.

Varnish removal also allowed better access to the raised cracking at the sides. These areas of the paint were carefully fixed back down (this process is called ‘consolidation’). The extensions still have a different texture to the main body of the painting, but they are now more secure better and protected from future damage.

Finally I brushed a varnish layer onto the painting to saturate the colours and create an isolating layer between the original paint and my restoration. I filled the few small areas of loss to the paint layers with a chalk putty mixture and then retouched the losses. This retouching was very minimal due the generally well preserved condition of the paint.

painting with patches of brighter colour

The painting during conservation, with the bright original colours in areas that had been cleaned contrasting with the yellowed varnish.

Find out more about the conservation of this painting on the website, in a special feature which explains some insights into the history of the painting and technique of the artist that were revealed during the examination and treatment.”

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