See all stories
21 Sep 2021

Conserving our new painting at Fyvie Castle

Written by Lauren Jackson, Conservator
Video created by James Gibson


We were contacted by the National Trust for Scotland to take care of a painting they had just bought in an auction in France, to bring it into its best possible condition, to make it presentable because it's going on display for the first time over here.
We had a report from a French conservator, who looked at the painting at the auction house pre-acquisition,
but there's only so much you can actually really see.
I mean you rely on the conservator's comments but it's different from actually seeing the painting in person!
So when it arrived I had a good look and the painting actually didn't need that much work.
It was mainly an issue of some cleaning on the back, securing the keys.
The main work needed to be done on the frame, so Sophie took care of that.

There were photographs and a report written by a local conservator there and they had stated that this frame had a two-tone gilded effect.
I've never heard of that before. A frame of this age definitely wouldn't have had that as a deliberate effect. I was a bit perturbed by that.
When the painting and frame came in, immediately I realised that this had been stored with parts of the gilding covered.
There might have been maybe tapes or wide pieces of paper and a lot of the time the tape would have been put across the width and the length of the frame when they were being moved because the tapes would protect the surface of the painting when it was then wrapped.
It would stop the wrapping hitting the surface of the painting.
My immediate suspicion was confirmed that this had basically been stored with those tapes on it.
It's so discoloured and dirty, and I've come across frames like this many times and they historically do not clean up very well.
The first cleaning test I did was actually on an area that had been protected by the tape and it came up beautifully, but then I went on to the areas that had been exposed to the dust and it's not cleaning up as well as I'd hoped.
People often think that if something's got dusty, you can just brush it off and it'll be fine.
If it's on a surface over a prolonged period of time, it can actually start to cross-link with the surface of the object.
It's actually quite a gritty, abrasive substance.
And when you come to clean, after say 50-100 years of the dust being sat on it, you'll find that instead of cleaning off to a brilliant finish, there's actually a lot of gold missing; there's a lot more wear on it; it almost looks like somebody's almost rubbed it.
And that's the process of prolonged exposure to dust.

The painting itself is in quite good condition; there's not much that needs done by a paintings conservator.
It had a few small restorations in the past but they're all quite well done.
But in the bottom left corner, there's an area where the paint has formed little wrinkles, which is just because the artist used a lot of medium and when it dried, it formed those wrinkles.
Because they were fragile, there were some minor pinpoint losses that had happened in the past.
That already happened before the current varnish was applied, so it's an old damage, it's not new, and it's stable as it is.
But it's showing little white spots, so I'm retouching those just for aesthetics.
I'm going to use a stable synthetic resin, which means it's staying the colour it is when I apply it.
It's not going to yellow and it will also stay soluble, so if in future for some reason somebody wants to take it off, then that's possible.

As you can see on this bit here, all of the layers that are built up over the wood have been worn away over the time, revealing the base, the wood underneath. This is a carved frame and people often think all frames are carved but most of them aren't and most of them are made from composition or plaster.
The bottom rails tend to get the most wear because this is where most people will see the dust and want to remove it.
As you can see here, there's no gold left at all and it's back down to a yellow bowl layer. Now, bowl is a product that's made with clay and they use different colours of clay to alter the colour of the gold.
But most frames you'll see have got a yellow layer, so if you've missed any bits it's not very obvious.
We finished filling all the gaps in the gesso around the frame.
These gaps were from knocks or from just wear and tear but they were back to the timber.
And then we're going to put bowl layers on, clay bowl, in yellow on the top and red on the side, because that's what originally was on this frame.
I'm adding the bowl layers to the gesso repairs now.
As you can see, it's very thin, it's almost watery consistency, but that's the correct consistency for this. You build the layers up, so this will probably have about 6-8 layers of the clay bowl applied and, as you can see, it's starting to blend in already.
That's the purpose of the yellow bowl: if you miss any parts, they won't show.

Despite the painting having quite a nice tension in the canvas, there are some local deformations.
Like for example on her hand, near the breast, at various spaces across her body. And then there's another group of deformations on both sides along the edges, kind of undulating, running into the centre.
For aesthetic reasons, you would normally like to have your painting nice and even throughout, but we decided in this case not to try to flatten those deformations. They are not caused by some later impact, where there might have been an accident and that deformed it, because you would see cracks in the paint layer if that happened.
But in this case they are likely to do with the paint application. As you can see, the background is quite thin paint layers, whereas her body -- the white tones -- are quite heavy paint.
So there's tensions within the paint layer when it dries and that causes the deformation in the canvas.
So it's quite fixed in the dried paint now and if we try to flatten that, I would cause new cracks and new stresses. The other deformations along the edges, they are actually caused by the canvas being irregularly stretched. The canvas has been repositioned on the stretcher various times by the artist. It's also been keyed out quite a lot so that there are irregularities and the only way to fix that would be to take the canvas off the stretcher now, do some alterations to the stretcher, put it back, and all this is causing a lot of stress to the canvas, which at the moment is in its original tacking to the stretcher, so it's not worth the risk at the moment.

Where possible, your treatment should be reversible.
In reality, in practice, that doesn't always work, especially in frames conservation because it's a lot more of a restoration rather than ...
You're not just conserving what's there, you're actually restoring it to be a more coherent object in order to fit well with the painting. So, if I re-gild parts of it, that will be in essence permanent.
It can be removed but you will be possibly taking more of the original surfaces away again as a consequence of it. So it is a fairly permanent action.
You can see here that there's areas that are clean which have been protected and then next to it you've got this area that's been exposed for many, many years to dust, and you see the difference. This is a clean area
and it still looks dirty and worn, so I've got a bit of a problem to tackle when I finish cleaning it.
It's going to look very patchy; it's not going to look consistent all the way across the surface of the frame, and as a conservator I've got to take that moral judgment as to whether you actually remove nice-looking gilding or tone down nice-looking gilding to match the very worn area, or do I gild the very worn area to bring it up to the same level as the protected parts?
As you can see, it's very bright and gaudy at the moment and it won't suit the age of the painting.
It'll just stand out like a sore thumb, so I'm in the process of toning the gilding down.
I would normally use powdered pumice stone, like the stuff you use to do your feet and stuff.
It's very finely powdered. They use it for polishing furniture and all sorts.
I usually use that to take the sheen off the gold, but in this case it didn't quite give me the effect I was wanting, compared to what is still remaining.
So what I've actually devised is to make a swab out of steel wool and it's a very light touch.
We're trying not to take all of the gold off because that would be a bit pointless after spending so long putting it on!
I'm very carefully just abrading the surface of the gold so that it takes that bright sheen off it and gives it a more aged appearance.
It's a very light touch needed because we don't want to take all the gold away because we've just spent so long putting it on.
And once I've done that, I will be covering it in layers of size, which is coloured with powder pigments, which will give it a more subtle soft effect that we're looking for.

Ok, so I'm going to secure the keys because if they drop out of the stretcher and fall in between the stretcher and the canvas, that can do quite some bad harm, starting from a little bulge in the canvas to causing flakes of paint falling off or even tearing the canvas if it comes to the worst.
It's not only happening during transport; it can also happen just due to changes in humidity, because the wood changes dimensions and then the key might drop out.
There are various methods on how people do this.
My favourite is using the fishing line.
Lots of people would put it here and tie it with a screw and a screw cup.
I prefer this method. I'm basically tying those two together, which means that they just can't fall out because this would need to move this way, which it can't.
I mean, this method only works if the keys are stable enough.
If they're too thin and they might break here, then it's not working.
But those keys are absolutely fine for this.
It saves you having to drill into the stretcher. I just find it a really neat, nice method.

Frames conservation is a lot more restoration than conservation a lot of the time.
Most clients would prefer the frame to look coherent. When a frame looks consistent, it actually fades into the background because what we're actually supposed to be looking at is the painting. And so my job as a conservator of frames is to make it look consistent in a way that won't draw people away from viewing the painting.
The frame is supposed to bring out the colours of the painting, hence the gold.
So my job is almost like for you not to notice the frame at all.
We are particularly pleased with how the frame now harmonises with the highlights on her shoulders and the head.
I hope everybody will enjoy it!

With generous support from the Art Fund, the Trust was recently able to acquire a portrait by acclaimed artist Philip Alexius de László of Lorna Marsali Forbes-Leith, a member of the family who lived at Fyvie Castle in the early 20th century.

The painting has been carefully examined and restored by conservation experts, who have carried out meticulous work to bring both the portrait and frame back to life. We’ve made this short video to showcase some of their work, giving a fascinating insight into the painstaking detail of preparing the portrait for display.

This painting was purchased by the National Trust for Scotland at auction in 2020, with support from Art Fund and the National Fund for Acquisitions.

The National Trust for Scotland is very grateful for the support of our generous funders who made the homecoming of this painting possible.

The National Fund for Acquisitions, administered with Scottish Government funding by National Museums Scotland, contributes towards the acquisition of objects for the collections of museums, galleries, libraries and archives throughout Scotland. Find out more about the work of the National Fund for Acquisitions on the National Museums Scotland website.

Art Fund is the national fundraising charity for art. It provides millions of pounds every year to help museums to acquire and share works of art across the UK, further the professional development of their curators, and inspire more people to visit and enjoy their public programmes. In response to Covid-19, Art Fund has made £2 million in adapted funding available to support museums through reopening and beyond, including Respond and Reimagine grants to help meet immediate need and reimagine future ways of working. Art Fund is independently funded, supported by the 130,000 members who buy the National Art Pass, who enjoy free entry to over 240 museums, galleries and historic places, 50% off major exhibitions, and receive Art Quarterly magazine. Art Fund also supports museums through its annual prize, Art Fund Museum of the Year. In a unique edition of the prize for 2020, Art Fund responded to the unprecedented challenges that all museums are facing by selecting five winners and increasing the prize money to £200,000. The winners were Aberdeen Art Gallery; Gairloch Museum; Science Museum; South London Gallery; and Towner Eastbourne.

I love this place

By joining the National Trust for Scotland, you can protect the places that matter to you and experience the best that Scotland has to offer.

Join today