Conserving our Masterpieces – The Gainsborough Painting

May 16, 2021 | Treasure tales and archive snippets | 4 minute read

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One of our most important paintings at Holkham is this work by Gainsborough, depicting Thomas William Coke ‘of Norfolk’ in his sporting best. Sadly, this work has had historic problems with flaking paint – it was previously treated in 2011 by a team of conservators from the Hamilton Kerr Institute, Cambridge, who attempted to consolidate the flaking. However, later inspections showed that the treatment had not been successful, and more paint was lifting. Initially scheduled to take place in April 2020, we were finally able to get another team from the Hamilton Kerr to safely carry out the work last month.

The project was a large undertaking, being carried out over several days. It is not a small painting, measuring 95 ½ x 67 inches. Therefore, in order to safely unhang the work, a team of strong six men were required. Once carefully de-installed, the work was stored on trestle tables in the South Dining Room, waiting for the team of conservators to start work.


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The process of unhanging the painting

When the conservators arrived, their first job was to remove the painting from the frame. Again, this took a team of six to carefully turn the painting face down, resting the frame on foam blocks, so that the conservators could unscrew the brass plates which held the canvas in place. After unframing, the canvas was returned to the trestle tables for the real work to begin.

The process of consolidating flaking paint is very delicate, requiring extremely close study of the painting. Detailed photographs were taken so that a ‘map’ of the problem areas could be created for future reference; if the flaking does re-occur then it is important to know whether the areas previously treated are flaking again, or whether it is somewhere else in the painting, indicating a more widespread problem.


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Conservators working on the painting


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An area of canvas before and after conservation work.


The conservators applied Lascaux conservation glue to the area of the canvas beneath the individual flakes. They then gently heated the paint to make it more flexible, and less liable to snap, before pushing the flake back into place. When all the flaking had been consolidated, they made some minor retouches to the painting and adjusted the stretcher slightly to remove a distortion to the canvas in the upper right-hand corner. The final step was to reframe the painting and to apply a backing to the reverse of the frame in order to act as a dust barrier.


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The canvas before and after the stretcher was adjusted, showing the distortion having been smoothed out


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Applying the new backing

Now the work has been hung it can be seen on pride of place in the South Dining Room, open during the guided tours of the Hall. Going forward it will be checked annually by conservators from the Hamilton Kerr to monitor for any reoccurrence of the flaking.

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