Emily Jenkins describes the recent conservation of three extraordinary panels at Simon Gillespie Studio.
The Tudor palace built by Henry VIII in the grounds of Nonsuch Park was perhaps the grandest and most magnificent of Henry’s building projects. Built to celebrate the birth of the King’s longed-for male heir and hailed as one of the first introductions of Renaissance style in Britain, it embodies the power and grandeur of the Tudor dynasty.
Little has survived of the physical structure of the palace save some foundations. However, a series of at least a dozen surviving decorative panels found at Losely Park in Surry have been generally accepted to have come from Nonsuch Palace and have resultantly become known as the ‘Nonsuch Panels’. Thought to have been painted for a celebration such as King Henry’s marriage to Katherine Parr, whose motif can also be seen in the panel designs, they are important and sophisticated examples of decorative art from the Tudor Court. They have been attributed to the artist Antonio Toto del Nunziato (1499-1554), one of many Italian painters who were employed in the Tudor court at the time. The panels came to Losely through Henry VIII’s keeper of the Tents and Master of the Revels, Sir Thomas Carwarden. It is this connection that has led to speculation that the panels constructed can be linked to a commission outlined for Carwarden in a surviving document for a series of panels on canvas to decorate the interior of a royal tent or pavilion.
Three of these panels, recently received at Simon Gillespie Studio, had been abandoned in a loft. The paintings, made from oil paint on canvas, were in poor condition. They were each covered in thick layers of dirt and dust accumulated over the years and a varnish which had degraded overtime, appearing as a dark yellow layer, was partly obscuring what was underneath.
As can be seen in the image above, one of the panels also had layers of what appeared to be decorator’s filling material, probably applied at some stage in a campaign of at-home conservation. It was also apparent that losses were present in the paint layer, in some areas revealing the bare canvas underneath, and that other areas were lifting away from the canvas and at risk of detaching. As with all old paintings, it was also possible that there could be layers of past overpaint on the paintings, so some of what was remaining may not have been original. This could not be discerned until we looked more closely at the paintings, and began removing some of the layers of dust, dirt, and varnish.
The paintings had also been lined with a secondary canvas adhered with a glue-paste adhesive at some point in the past. This process was common from the nineteenth century onwards and is still carried out today in order to impart a structurally unstable canvas with additional support.
Despite the considerable paint losses and an obscuring veil composed of discoloured varnish, dirt and dust built up over centuries, it was possible to see some of the beauty of what was underneath. Thoughtfully constructed expressive facial features, delicately detailed foliage and floral borders, and tonal differences that would only become brighter and more impacting once the varnish was removed could all be seen. It was clear that a considered and beneficial conservation process would reveal some truly impressive lost Tudor treasures.
The first stage of restoring these paintings was to remove the superficial dirt on the surface of the paintings on both the front and the back. This was done with a vacuum cleaner and brush on the reverse of the canvas, and after tests were carried out to find a safe and effective method of cleaning for the front, ammonia in water successfully removed the dirt layers.
The top varnish layers were then removed using a combination of solvents, depending on what was most effective for the type of varnish, such as mixtures of white spirit and ethanol. The old lining was removed from the reverse of the painting and a new lining canvas was added using BEVA 371 wax adhesive. This process also gently flattened and re-adhered the raised paint flakes, stabilising the paint layers.
After lining, the remaining varnish and dirt layers were removed using some of the new gels currently being developed for use in cleaning paintings. Xanthan, a water-based gel, was mixed with benzyl alcohol and white spirit and adjusted until a mixture was developed which effectively and safely removed the dirt and varnish layers. This gel also removed the tough, old overpaint which had been added over losses at some point in the past. The gel was cleared away with a white spirit and ethanol mixture so that residues were not left on the surface.
Once clean, the paintings were varnished using Laropal A81, a reversible, stable, synthetic resin. The damages in the paint layers were filled using gelatine and chalk putty and textured to replicate the finish of the surrounding paint. The filled areas were then retouched using pigments and Laropal A81 in order to reintegrate the areas of losses into the image.
A final spray varnish of Laropal A81 was then applied in order to enhance the colours and depth of the paintings, and also to provide a protective layer.
As the objects are of historical importance and significant examples of Tudor decoration, a combination of research, discussion and expert input led to the decision to impart minimal superficial restoration on the paintings. This means that the essential cleaning work to reveal the original paint and remove potentially harmful dirt and additions was already carried out, and the superficial image reintegration work involving filling and retouching would be kept to a minimum to maintain the authentic nature of the historic works and keep them aesthetically appropriate by not retouching them to a finished level.
Sources for the historical details about Nonsuch and the Nonsuch panels: ‘A rare Tudor survival’, Bendor Grovesnor, published on 15th March 2012 on www.arthistorynews.com