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30.11.2016

In the frame: paintings restoration at Combermere Abbey

Harriet Owen Hughes ACR shares her 'very small' part in the award-winning restoration of a historic house

Combermere Abbey has had many guises: a monastery, a country house, an inheritance at risk of demolition and, now, an award-winning example of complex restoration.

Combermere was recently awarded the Historic House Association (HHA)/Sotheby's ‘Restoration of the Year Award’ following a 24-year restoration effort led by owners Sarah Callander Beckett and her husband, Peter.

Several accredited Icon members worked on the restoration, among them Harriet Owen Hughes ​ACR who treated several paintings in the family library.

As is typical of conservators, Harriet is self-effacing about her part in the project, stressing that her contribution was a “very small” part of an enormous whole. Nevertheless, we persuaded her to tell us more.

What was your involvement in the Combermere Abbey restoration project?

My part in this whole project was very small and all the credit for the Sothebys/HHA Restoration Award should go to the owners, Sarah and Peter Callander Beckett.

Other accredited Icon members were also involved in the project, although I never met them.

My involvement with the North Wing library paintings was in 2012 when I worked on four small paintings set in the panelling over the fireplace in the library.

Later, in 2014/15, I treated four full-length portraits in the same room, also set in panelling, and the Tillemans of the house.

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Four small portraits said to depict Sir George Cotton, Elizabeth, Queen of England, Henry VIII and Richard Cotton (Images: Combermere Abbey)

What were some of the challenges you faced?

The smaller paintings posed no particular challenges except that of Elizabeth I which had been altered – possibly 'modernised' in the reign of Queen Anne. The alterations were not removed.

Two of the full-length portraits, on panel, had suffered fire damage in the past and one was too badly damaged to clean. Sadly, there was very little original paint left.

At one point, it was discovered that one of the paintings was in fact two separate ones. Can you tell us a bit more about this discovery?

This was the man in armour. I suspected that the background had been overpainted when I inspected the paintings. The paint had a 'crocodile' texture and appeared readily soluble. Larger cleaning tests in the studio revealed flowers, though somewhat damaged; this was confirmed by X-rays taken in the studio by David Crombie (National Museums Liverpool).

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The full-length portrait (left) with the flower painting hidden beneath (right) (Images: Harriet Hughes ACR)

What had appeared to be a full-length painting of a man in armour was in fact a half-length, with a flower painting attached before lining. The flower painting is of quite high quality, though with some damages and indications that it may have been rubbed down in places to take the overpaint. It is upside down.

The treatment options were:

  • To detach the flower painting, remove the overpaint, line stretch and retouch it as a separate painting. This would have necessitated delining and relining each half and probably creating a substitute bottom half with legs as the painting is one of a set of four full-lengths set in the panelling.
  • To clean the top half and legs, retouch the cleaning tests covering over the flowers and leave the man on a brown background.
  • To clean the top half and legs, remove the overpaint from the flower painting, but leave the legs, retouching damages – leaving the man standing as it were in a herbaceous border. This is the option the owners chose and I was very proud of them.

What do awards like the HHA/Sotheby's Restoration Award mean to you?

It was very nice to get the award but I can't stress enough that it is for the whole project and the paintings are just a small part of it.

The house has just come off the At Risk Register, and also just won the Georgian Group Award for Best Restoration of a Private House.

You work as an independent conservator. Can you tell us a bit about your journey?

I think it is very hard for conservators setting out now. I was lucky – after the Courtauld I worked at the Walker Art Gallery until I set up my own studio. I have always worked in Liverpool so gradually I have become known. I think having worked for the National Trust has given me some credibility with the country house owners I now mainly work for.

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The finished library at Combermere Abbey (Image: Combermere Abbey)

You have said that you greatly enjoyed working with the clients on this project. What are some ideal traits in a client?

Sarah Callender Beckett was a brilliant client; she was very interested and aware of the process but did not put me under pressure or intervene in any way unless I asked for a decision (for example, how to treat the man in armour).

I am very lucky that I do now in general have clients who will trust me, but who would come into the studio if necessary to discuss some aspects such as the extent of retouching.

Finally, what’s next for you?

I have two very large paintings from a house in Wales. They are almost the exact opposite of the Combermere paintings in that they are 19th Century and although they have been neglected and need structural work they possibly have never been restored. I was really looking forward to working on them but the client has not yet accepted my estimates!

Beyond that, there is the possibility of a joint project working on same large paintings on silver gilt leather if an international panel of experts can agree on the way forward... and more normal sized paintings in between.

Find out more about Harriet's projects and follow Icon on Facebook and Twitter for more insight into conservation. 

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