Transformative conservation: ‘The Lamentation’

As the newly appointed Conservation Steward, I’ve been working over the past nine months to improve how we care for the objects in the College Collections, commissioning specialists to perform conservation treatments and carrying out preventive care as well as in-house conservation treatments.

Recently we commissioned a particularly interesting treatment on a painting called The Lamentation by Pietro Testa–a 17th century oil on canvas. It hangs over the altar of the Our Lady of Sorrows Chapel, located on Eton Court Road in Eton. The chapel was commissioned between 1905 and 1915 by Old Etonian Lord Braye, who wanted a Roman Catholic Chapel built for the use of the Roman Catholic students of the school and the parishioners of Eton and Datchet. In recent years this building was acquired by Eton College.

The Lamentation before treatment

‘The Lamentation’ before treatment

The Lamentation is significant in size (two metres long by one metre high) and holds a prominent place within the chapel. In 2014 an initial condition assessment of The Lamentation was undertaken by the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge. They ascertained that the original canvas was typical of the early 17th century, but that it had undergone relining onto a secondary canvas in the 19th century. The paint layers seemed stable but the varnish was extremely discoloured, taking on an orange-brown tone that rendered the painting almost unreadable. In addition it was noted that there were many areas of retouching, probably from previous treatments, which were also extremely discoloured and disfiguring.

The conclusions from the assessment were that a full cleaning of the painting should be undertaken, including total removal of the varnish, removal of the overpaint in retouched areas and consolidation of any flaking paint layers. Finally, areas where paint had been lost would be filled and retouched, and a new varnish added for protection. Thanks to a generous donation, we were able to fund the treatment and in 2016 the painting was sent to the Hamilton Kerr Institute to be conserved.

It has now been almost a year since it left Eton and it has proved itself to be one of the most transformative conservation treatments ever undertaken at Hamilton Kerr. During the varnish removal it emerged that there were many layers of decayed varnish with dirt sandwiched between them, explaining why the painting was so dark and the subjects almost completely obscured. What conservators found under these layers were the bright and clear tones of the original 17th-century paint, which had been unseen for years. The painting is now in its final stage of conservation, being retouched and awaiting its new varnish layer. It is expected to be returned to us in early May.

The Lamentation halfway

Halfway through treatment

This project has been extremely rewarding in many ways, including the forging of new relationships with external conservators and giving conservation students the chance to work on and research a significant artwork. It will bring an artist’s original vision back to life and share it with the parishioners of Our Lady of Sorrows and the wider Eton community: an exciting example of the Collections team’s work to care for and preserve the collections for the benefit of present and future generations.

By Aimee Sims, Conservation Steward

Hodgkin at Eton

Venice Evening

Venice Evening, by Howard Hodgkin (1995). Courtesy artist’s estate and Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

On 9 March 2017, the artist Howard Hodgkin died in a London hospital. One of the most significant and influential painters of his generation, Hodgkin is also the most celebrated of the many distinguished Old Etonian artists. His first retrospective, curated by Nicholas Serota, was held at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in 1976. In 1984, he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale and in the following year won the Turner Prize. He was knighted in 1992 and made a Companion of Honour in 2003.

Hodgkin’s connection to Eton is recognised by the display of two prints, Venice Evening and Venice Night, from the Venetian Views series (1995), each almost two metres wide, which hang in the foyer of the Farrer Theatre. However, he was only a pupil at Eton for one academic year, before his repeated running away led the school to insist he attend sessions with a therapist. He had lived in America as a young child and later claimed that he successfully persuaded the therapist to recommend that he return to the States instead of beginning a second year at Eton. But despite being deeply unhappy as a schoolboy, later in life Hodgkin fondly recalled the time he spent in the Drawing Schools with the then Drawing Master, Wilfred Blunt. He admired Blunt’s willingness to offer a clear verdict on the merits of a work, a quality he feared was being lost, and claimed to have learnt something of how to live as an outsider from Blunt. He held particularly vivid memories of Blunt’s eclectic collection of objects displayed within a glass cabinet in the Drawing Schools. These assorted items were intended for boys to draw or paint from and Hodgkin specifically recalled among them an African sculpture of a dog with an erect penis.

Venice Night~hi

Venice Night, by Howard Hodgkin (1995). Courtesy artist’s estate and Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

Over half a century after his single year as a pupil of Eton, Hodgkin returned for a fleeting visit. In 2002 he was asked to open a new extension to the Drawing Schools and to view his two prints, newly installed in the Farrer Theatre. Current Drawing Master, Ian Burke, remembers meeting Hodgkin during this visit:

He was obviously a very intelligent and slightly detached man, who did not comment on any of the work on display. He seemed relatively pleased that the two prints in the Farrer Theatre had been purchased by his old school.

In his speech, when declaring the new section of the Drawing Schools open, he thanked Eton and the past Drawing Master Wilfred Blunt for encouraging his enthusiasm for painting and art in general. He described Blunt as inspiring and very encouraging to a boy who much preferred painting to games.

The prints can still be viewed in the foyer of the Farrer Theatre at Eton.

By Philippa Martin, Keeper of Fine & Decorative Arts