Today we are fortunate enough to be able to spotlight a guest project coming all the way from the Blickling Estate in the United Kingdom. Thanks to donations from Ashford Trust and the Norfolk Centre, the National Trust has been able to preserve a series of five Grisailles paintings by artist Francis Hayman (1708-1776) — one of the founding members of the Royal Academy.
The paintings are significant because of their genre, the word ‘Grisailles’ referring to the greyish, monochrome colour scheme used. A Grisaille painting may be created for its own sake, or used as an underpainting for the artist to later finish in colour. Little is known about the Blickling’s collection of five Francis Hayman Grisailles paintings except that they used to hang in the library. The fashion in the early 18th Century was to hint towards classicism and antiquity, and the Grisailles resemble the frescos and marble reliefs that were popular at the time. What is particularly interesting is that, despite the changes in fashion, with a move towards the Arts and Crafts period in the later part of the 18th Century, these paintings have stood the test of time, and remained as valued pieces throughout their lifespan.
The conservation of these five works took two forms: consolidation of the paintwork, and stabilization of the frames. Conserving the paintwork was especially challenging because the surface is unvarnished and the paint is quite matte. Hayman is thought to have used a higher proportion of pigment to oil to replicate the look and feel of stonework, and this has resulted in a very porous paint layer. The canvas itself is also unlined. This means any cleaning liquid or glue inevitably soaks through the thirsty surface, and can easily discolor the paintwork. Conservators Sally Woodcock and Polly Saltmarsh consolidated the painting by filling in any surface cracking with specialist glue and using a hot air blower pen kindly borrowed from Willard Conservation Ltd to set this in place.
Once consolidated, Sally used deionised water to lightly clean the surface of the painting, gently removing excess dirt and debris caused by insects and bats.
The money donated also helped to carry out preventative conservation to the frames to ensure that they fully support the canvases. First, they were treated for woodworm. Then balsa wood spacers were inserted between the frame and canvas to prevent the canvas from moving around. The spacers also ensure easy access to the canvases in the future by minimizing the potential damage caused by needing to remove the paintings from their frames. Interestingly, it’s been assumed that these black frames with gilded edges are original, but white flecks of paint seen on the sides of the canvas (only visible when the paintings are removed from their frame) perhaps suggest that the frames were actually white originally.
The conservation work that was carried out on this Hayman series will significantly improve the lifespan of these works, embodying the idea of preserving the past forever, for everyone.
Written by the National Trust, Blickling Estate. Edited by Fine Arts Conservation.