A Historic Transformation

Published / December 20, 2020

While the new Museum of Fine Arts is under construction, works from the AMFA Foundation Collection are undergoing a transformation of their own.

George Romney’s Lady Willoughby de Broke before conservation began.
George Romney, British (Beckside, Lancashire, England, 1734 – 1802, Kendal, Westmorland, England), Lady Willoughby de Broke, 1779-1781, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 1/4 inches, Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation Collection: Gift of the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust. 2019.006.001

From the canvas of George Romney’s 1779–1781 portrait, Lady Willoughby de Broke, a woman in a fashionable gold dress and a stylish hairdo surveys her audience. In her right hand, she holds the skirt of her dress. With her left hand, she clutches a book close to her body. Behind her, the English countryside stretches into the distance.

Romney (1734–1802) is best known for his provocative portraits of fashionable English society, and this painting is no exception. Louisa North was the daughter of Francis North, Earl of Guilford, and the sister of Frederick North – who, known as Lord North, was the deeply unpopular Prime Minister of England during the American Revolution. In 1761, Louisa North married John Peyto-Verney, the 14th Baron Willoughby de Broke. By 1779, when Romney began work on this painting, the American Revolution was well underway. Baron and Lady Willoughby de Broke by that time had 10 children – six of whom did not survive childhood, and only two of whom would live to adulthood.

“It is understandable that she looks a bit sad in the portrait,” said Ann Prentice Wagner, Jackye and Curtis Finch, Jr. Curator of Drawings. “She was a very important lady of fashion, but clearly had a hard time between her powerful but unpopular brother and the loss of so many
young children.”

While the new Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts is under construction, Lady Willoughby de Broke is one of the many works from the collection undergoing conservation. Conservation and restoration are part of the natural life cycle of any artwork – and it is the responsibility of collections managers, curators, and conservators to ensure that these works survive as long as possible to be enjoyed by as many people as possible.

Shan Kuang is an assistant research scholar for the Kress Program in Paintings Conservation at New York University – and one of the conservators currently working on paintings from the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation Collection. Along with Lady Willoughby de Broke, Lorenzo di Niccoló’s The Martyrdom of St. Stephen (c. 1400), Francesco Bassano’s The Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1580), Bartholomeus van Bassen’s Interior of a Church (1639), and Adriaen Frans Boudewyns and Pieter Bout’s Village with River and Bridge (c. 1680) are also being conserved at NYU.

As a paintings conservator – and specifically an Old Masters conservator – the first thing Kuang and her team do when a work arrives for conservation is assess the condition of the object. After ensuring that a painting is in a condition stable enough to treat, Kuang and her team prepare a proposal for treatment. The conservation process begins by removing the layer of varnish that covers the oil paint or egg tempera on the canvas or panel – which tends to yellow and darken over time, obscuring the details and colors of the artist’s hand.

“It’s akin to looking at a painting through a really, really dirty windshield,” Kuang said. “By removing this varnish, hopefully you can appreciate the full vibrancy and also the refinement of the details in the picture.”

Photographs are taken throughout the conservation process to record any damage to the artwork and to show before and after states. But conservators also use infrared and x-ray-based imaging as they study the artwork. Infrared photographs often reveal carbon-based underdrawings on the surface of the artwork. These early marks, made in the artist’s hand, allow scholars to better understand the processes that went into making works of art that are hundreds of years old. X-ray imaging picks up on heavy metals in painting – meaning that it can often show places where an artist changed their mind in the course of painting. And it was with x-ray imaging that Kuang discovered a fascinating adjustment Romney made to Lady Willoughby de Broke.

Lady Willoughby de Broke shown in the middle of the conservation process – after cleaning and before inpainting and varnishing. After removing the varnish from this portrait, it became apparent that the sitter’s dress is more of a green-hued silver than gold – but the old varnish on top of the painting had yellowed enough to change the color of the dress. The painting will be sealed with a new layer of varnish before it is returned to the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.
George Romney, British (Beckside, Lancashire, England, 1734 – 1802, Kendal, Westmorland, England), Lady Willoughby de Broke, 1779-1781, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 1/4 inches, Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation Collection: Gift of the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust. 2019.006.001

“If you look carefully at the x-ray and you compare it to the visible image, you can see that she has three left hands, not just one, but three left hands,” Kuang said. “In fact it might be a matter of the sitter being very picky.”

Historical documents show that Louisa North sat for this portrait six times over the course of two years. In early drafts, x-ray imaging shows her left arm extended out. In a second take, her arm is held closer to her body. In the final draft – the finished painting – she is clutching a book close to her body.

“It has been very exciting to see the transformation of this elegant portrait with the removal of layers of dirt and yellowed varnish,” Wagner said. “I knew it as a lovely but much darkened British portrait in a shadowy area at the back of a vault. Now it will emerge in its full glory.”

After cleaning, photographing, and documenting any other new discoveries, Lady Willoughby de Broke will be inpainted and a new layer of varnish will be applied – albeit a much thinner layer than was often applied in the 19th or 20th centuries. The transformed painting will then be returned to the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.

– Maria Davison, Communications Manager