Monday, 5 August 2013

Macbeth and the Witches

Last week, two painting conservators visited Petworth House to look at Macbeth and the Witches. This large picture hangs in the Square Dining Room and has long been the subject of conversation. Started by Joshua Reynolds in 1786, it depicts Act IV, Scene I of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The painting was left unfinished in 1789 when it was reported that partial blindness forced Reynolds to stop painting.

Any visitor to Petworth will have noticed how dark this painting looks hanging on the wall. Sophie and Jim, our painting conservators, spent the afternoon working on the painting, taking samples and making test patches in order to see whether the visuals of it could be improved.

Lights were temporarily put up in the Square Dining Room to allow Sophie and Jim to work on the painting - revealing detail in the painting that cannot be seen on a normal day.

Jim used a cotton swab to test small patches of the paintwork.

Reynolds commonly experimented with bitumen in his work, which has ultimately led to the painting darkening in colour over time. It has also caused cracking in the paintwork, exposing the white of the canvas underneath and making the detail even harder to see. Prior to Sophie and Jim’s visit, we weren’t sure whether anything could be done to reverse the damage.

However, we are delighted to be able to say that Sophie and Jim believe they can improve the visuals of the painting. From their tests they were able to determine that, following previous touch-up work, the painting was varnished without cleaning the painting first. This has meant that the top layer of varnish is dirty, undoubtedly darkening the picture. Furthermore, the canvas exposed by the cracked paint further darkens the picture and makes the figures harder to see.

Due to the presence of bitumen in the paint, Macbeth and the Witches is never going to be as light as we may like it to be. However, we are hopeful that removing the dirty varnish and retouching the cracked paint will brighten the picture enough to have a very positive effect on the visuals of the painting.

For now, we have to concentrate on planning the logistics of working on the piece and whether to remove it or work on it in-situ. Quite a task in hand! Watch this space...

Macbeth and the Witches was originally commissioned by Alderman John Boydell for the Shakespeare Gallery in 1786. He commissioned paintings of scenes by Shakespeare from the leading artists of the day and opened a gallery for their exhibition in Pall Mall, London, 1789. Due to financial difficulties, the collection was sold by auction in 1805, and it was later acquired by the 3rd Earl of Egremont and brought to Petworth.

Conservation Assistant 

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