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 piece of finger and spine

ecr_39-45Certificate of delivery of relics, ECR 39/45bridlingtonSeal of the Priory of Bridlington

When Henry VI established Eton College, he wanted it to be a place of importance. To that end, he granted a vast amount of land and a number of privileges and rights, some not held by anywhere else in England, such as the right to grant Indulgences. In addition, he gave Eton a large collection of holy relics, intending College Chapel to become a place of pilgrimage.

Inventories drawn up over the years describe these relics and the amazing mounts created for them. In addition to the ubiquitous Thorn and piece of the True Cross, there were some more unusual items. One of the first items to be gifted by Henry was a piece of the finger and spine of St John of Bridlington.

Born in 1320 in Yorkshire, St John was commended for the integrity of his life, his scholarship, and his quiet generosity. Recognised as a saint by the Pope in 1401, he would be the last English saint to be canonised before the Reformation. After his death, tales of miracles attributed to him spread throughout the country. Henry V attributed his victory at Agincourt to the intercession of St John of Bridlington and made a number of pilgrimages to the priory there. He was therefore a popular saint for the Lancastrians, and an eminently suitable one for Henry VI’s enterprise.

Henry VI took possession of the relics on 26 June 1445 and gifted them to Eton. An elaborate reliquary of sliver and gilt was built to house them.

The cult of St John of Bridlington was short-lived, and as with many local saints his popularity faded over the years and today he is little known. Under Edward VI, Eton was forced to submit to the ecclesiastical changes being introduced – the images surrounding the altar were pulled down, and the altar frontals sold. After 1551, the Feast of the Relics was no longer celebrated, and the ornamental reliquaries were surrendered.

By Eleanor Hoare, College Archivist