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11.04.2017

Conservators and the Double-Sided Secret

When conservators took a 15th century painting off the wall, they discovered an artwork that had been hidden for decades

Ahead of the Madonnas and Miracles exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, the conservators of the Hamilton Kerr institute were given a request list of art to be conserved. Among them was a painting that had been hanging up for decades; The Virgin Mary and Christ Child, which is presently attributed to Italian pre-Renaissance artist Pietro di Niccolo da Orvieto. Very quickly after removing the painting from its display location, the conservators realised that the back was actually something quite out of the ordinary.

hki-3059_img-1_0.jpgThe Virgin Mary and Christ Child before conservation

Rupert Featherstone ACR kindly spoke to us about the discovery and the conservation.

hki-3059_img-2_0.jpg“Out of all the paintings requested for the exhibition I thought this was the least exciting picture.  It had a very grey look to it. We took it down, as I need to look at the back and I thought “wow, what’s this?” I’d never seen something quite like it. It wasn’t long before I called the curators and said ‘I think we’ve got something interesting here.’”

Undisturbed on the back of The Virgin Mary and Christ Child was another, complete, and apparently “abstract” painting, probably meant to represent polished marble or precious stone, but hidden under a very dark grey layer and difficult to decipher.

 “It hadn’t been taken off the wall in a very long time.  People must have noticed the strange shape on the back but it wasn’t recorded at all. It hadn’t had any treatment for a very long time, and when it was last cleaned, maybe in the nineteenth century, there was less interest in its physical history - now there’s a lot more involvement from art historians and so it’s always a joint effort with other fields to discover more about the paintings in our care.

We took it back to the studio for a better assessment. Sven van Dorst, one of our postgraduates, quickly discovered that the back was just covered in very heavy dirt – not varnish. It turned out that it was painted in a wonderfully fresh and expressive way, and using very intense colours. There were a few chalk number marks, from a previous collection perhaps, but it was otherwise untouched. The back had never had any restoration work on it.” 

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Rupert and his team determined that the painting was genuine and was not a later addition to the back of the wooden panel. Then came the difficult decisions about the level of conservation. Due to the lack of varnish, it could have been a difficult clean, as the dirt might have bonded to the unvarnished paint. Luckily the dirt cleaned off safely.

It was decided early on not to apply any varnish to the back after cleaning, so as not to change the colour values. However, there were quite a few small dents and chips which created distracting white patches. After potentially 600 years without conservation, these kind of patches are to be expected. The decision was made to do some minimal in-painting to these to reduce their distracting appearance, whilst still being minimal with the restoration. In addition, there were several holes in the back, where it had been hung before. It was decided to leave these, as these were part of the painting’s history.

The uncovered back is quite remarkable for its 15th Century dating. Whilst discussions are ongoing about the exact subject of the painting, Rupert was amazed at how expressive the marbled back was. “It was as if the front was traditional and then the artist went wild on the back… there’s a spontaneity and a wildness of colour that’s really very odd… it has this immediate feel, and looks almost like a comet. The other times I’ve seen paintings of this date, with a decorated or marbled back, they are more mundane. What’s more, so few of them survive. Painted backs are typically damaged or scraped down, leaving only fragments, not the whole thing. What we have here is that the whole integral frame is painted, as well as the back. It was clearly always meant to be displayed on both sides. Its small size indicates it was always meant to be a private thing, perhaps to be kept in a box, an almost pocket-sized devotional object.”

This unassuming painting has been quite a revelation for all involved.

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“Although very beautiful, it is one of the minor works in the museum, and we’re not even sure if we know the artist. We check our paintings carefully on a regular basis, but often just from the front, as they hang on the wall! I’ve seen a lot of these kinds of paintings but I’ve not seen one with a back like it.

I’ve learnt that every painting seems to have something hidden, even the ones we know rather well! As a student thirty years ago I must have looked at these paintings and now I’m discovering all these secrets… It makes you wonder what else is out there. Maybe this will inspire other conservators and curators who might have seen something like this in the past to go back and take a closer look.”

The painting can be viewed at the Fitzwilliam Museum as part of Madonnas & Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy until 7th June 2017.

Many thanks to Rupert Featherstone ACR for his time and contribution to this article.

All images reproduced with kind permission of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

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