Technical Analysis of Tudor and Stuart Portraits at Tate

Rica Jones, Conservation Department, Tate Britain

Making Art in Tudor Britain

Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

'In the last few years all the Tudor and Stuart paintings at the Tate have been given thorough technical examination and analysis, a project sponsored by the Getty Grant Program. Two aspects of the results were discussed:

Technical characteristics of three paintings by John Bettes.

After a thorough technical examination of the only signed painting by John Bettes (Portrait of a Man in a Black Cap, 1545, Tate), two other paintings attributed to his authorship were examined closely. A number of common technical features emerged from the three, which in conjunction with stylistic similarities may prove helpful as guidelines in future attributions of paintings from the 1540's: on a white chalk ground the paintings have an oil-based, salmon pink priming. In the background area the pink priming is overlaid with a coat of thin, opaque pale bluish grey oil paint, as a self-coloured primer for the eventual blue background. The backgrounds are complex and show the use of the pigment smalt, then a relative newcomer to any artist's palette. In the Tate painting two thick coats of smalt were used; in the other two smalt was used on top of the expensive blue pigment azurite. Other technical characteristics include distinctively drawn facial features, and the pigment vermilion mixed with lead white in the whites of the eyes.

Observations on the relationship between manuals of painting and actual technique of Stuart portraiture.

Manuals of painting, which became popular in England from the mid-sixteenth century, describe a formalised system of building up portraits: drawing; dead colouring; second painting; reinforcement of highlights and shadows with scumbles and glazes. While it is to be expected that practising artists would evolve a personalised version of this system, it has been interesting to find hardly any formalised dead colouring and only very sketchy underpainting in general. This would suggest that the books reflect the amateur or at best semi-professional status of their authors, and that many of them draw on earlier French or Italian books for their content. Two English artists - William Dobson and Mary Beale - were cited as exceptions in using elaborate dead colouring. Investigations continue into this phenomenon.'