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

A spoonful of brimstone and treacle

From a book held in the College Archives [COLL EST HL 1], dated 1693, a recipe for aches and pains:

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Recipe for curing ache, 1693

 

A reicut to Coore the Eche [A receipt to cure Ache]

A hanfull of box

A hanfull of wormwood

A hanfull of Isope [hissop]

A hanfull of Rewe [rue]

A pound of Lard

Boill it woll to gether

Strain it and take a litell brim stone and store it to gether till its cold

take trekell [treacle] and brim stone for five or six days drive it out well, then take the ointment and nint your self

Brimstone, a form of sulphur, and treacle or molasses were commonly used as a cure-all at a time when medicine was not readily available to the masses. Charles Dickens mentions its use in Nicholas Nickleby, showing that even 150 years after this recipe was written its popularity had not decreased. It is the threat of this treatment that makes Michael and Jane Banks write their definition of a good nanny in Mary Poppins, when their father’s choice and former nanny says “Brimstone and Treacle and codliver oil, liberal doses of each. These are the treats from which children recoil, the lessons I’m going to teach”.

The benefits of sulphur as an anti-oxidant and detox agent have been known for thousands of years. Part of the popularity of spas was the sulphurous content of the water, and modern day diets such as the cabbage soup diet are based on these properties. It has been used to cure skin complaints, as a laxative, and as here, to relieve aching joints.

By Eleanor Hoare, College Archivist

The Galeria Farnese in print

I have just finished cataloguing a very beautiful book previously owned by William Hanbury of Kelmarsh Hall, Northamptonshire. Judging by the bookplate, this may be the William Hanbury who rebuilt Kelmarsh in 1732 to a design by James Gibbs, producing a house which Pevsner describes as being ‘in an impeccable taste’.   Hanbury’s interest in Italian architecture and art is certainly manifest in his ownership of this engraved volume.

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Published in 1657, its thirty plates show Annibale Carracci’s painted ceiling in the galleria of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, executed 1597-1601. Carracci’s ceiling is a triumph of illusion, using trompe l’oeil to continue the gallery walls with mounted framed pictures, and creating layers of fictitious reality using a combination of ‘stone’, ‘bronze’, ‘painted’ and ‘living’ figures.  Many of these tricks are lost in Carlo Cesi’s 17th century engraved copies, but he does succeed in capturing the superb moulding of the figures, and the interplay between paintings, sculptural figures and architectural detail.  The beauty of the plates is enhanced by their having been printed in a chalk red, rather than black.

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By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian

A binder’s Valentine’s Day gift

This fine binding, given to College Library by John Hely-Hutchinson, was made by the binder Alexander Cleeve, who worked in Westminster at the end of the 17th century.  The binding is red ‘turkey’ leather, tooled in gold, and including the distinctive vase with leopard’s head tool which belonged to Cleeve.

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Inside, a page has been inserted, painted purple and covered in gold letters: this book is a Valentine’s Day present to Mrs Dorcas Gale from her friend ‘A.C.’. We can only assume that the giver was the binder himself.  It is, from a modern perspective, a slightly dubious gift: the work inside, Allestree’s The Ladies Calling, is a bestselling conduct book, setting out how the virtuous woman should live.  The first five sections cover compassion, affability, piety, modesty and meekness.  Cleeve might have made a rather bossy Valentine!

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian

‘A dainty peece of entertainment’: John Milton’s early poems

Our second featured item is a very rare book, the first printed edition of poems by the author of Paradise Lost, one of the towering works of English literature.  Milton’s career as a poet was disrupted by the English Civil War, and then by the Restoration, when as a ‘regicide’ he spent months in hiding and in prison.  The epic Paradise Lost was finally completed in 1663, after years of dictation by the blind author.  It went on to become one of the most influential poems in the English canon, with its use of classical forms adopted from Virgil and Dante, and with its heroic depiction of Satan.

The book recently added to College Library’s collection contains the poems from the early part of Milton’s life, and reflect a world untouched by the imminent political upheavals. Included are pious works, such as On the morning of Christ’s nativity. Composed 1629; juvenilia; a series of sonnets in Italian, which, with the two long poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso demonstrate the influence on Milton of his Italian trip in 1638; and the masque written for the Earl of Bridgewater and his family, Comus. Included with Comus is a printed letter from Eton’s Provost, Sir Henry Wotton, commending the poem as ‘a dainty peece of entertainment’.  The second portion of the book contains Milton’s poems in Latin, part of his oeuvre now neglected but by his contemporaries considered to be par excellence.

As well as the book’s rarity, it also has typographical beauty to recommend it. The setting of all the verses on their pages, with broad margins and precise impressions, makes the book a delight to read.  We are extremely pleased to be able to show Milton’s poems in such a winning format, as they were read by his first audience.

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian

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Portrait of John Milton: frontispiece to Poems of John Milton (London, 1645)