Richard Cumberland

George Romney (1734-1802)


This shows Richard Cumberland before conservation

This shows Richard Cumberland after cleaning, retouching and revarnishing

At the National Portrait Gallery conservation work takes place for a number of reasons. Paintings newly acquired for the collection undergo a full assessment of their condition and sometimes require remedial work to stabilize them or make them suitable for display. When paintings are required for loan they are also checked to establish if they are structurally sound for travel. Equally, we always consider whether the painting will appear to best advantage when properly lit and displayed in an exhibition setting. When this portrait of Richard Cumberland was selected for the Romney exhibition it first had to be recalled from long-term loan, to the Government Art Collection, from Downing Street where it had hung for many years. On its return to the National Portrait Gallery, its condition was duly assessed. The painting is lined and is structurally sound and therefore required no current action; its appearance (as shown in image 1) however was marred by an overlying layer of discoloured varnish and numerous retouchings which had darkened considerably over time.

This playwright and diplomat Richard Cumberland (1732-1811) became friendly with George Romney around 1768. He was one of Romney's greatest champions, declaring him to be 'a second Corregio' who ranked 'with the first masters of the highest province and the best age of painting'. Cumberland and his family sat to Romney on a number of occasions between 1776-1781 however the exact dating of this portrait is difficult. Studies in sketchbooks dated 1770-1 suggest that Romney began the composition as early as 1771. The composition includes several different painting styles, and x-radiography shows an alteration to the position of Cumberland's right hand, these suggest that Romney continued to work on this canvas after returning from Italy in 1775. Although their friendship did cool in later life, after the artist's death it was Cumberland who salvaged Romney's reputation by writing a laudatory obituary for the European Magazine.

The painting Richard Cumberland (NPG 19) was one of the National Portrait Gallery's earliest acquisitions. It has been in the collection since 1857 but has not undergone any significant conservation work since it was purchased from Cumberland's grandson.

Richard Cumberland (detail) during cleaning

Richard Cumberland (detail) after conservation

The condition of the original paint is generally very good. Most of the old damages and subsequent restoration were confined to the area of the sky and landscape. As a result, removal of the discoloured varnish was relatively straightforward although extra caution had to be taken with the brown background and red drapery since these areas proved to be slightly sensitive to the action of the cleaning solvents.

The detail on the left, taken during varnish removal, shows that the overlying natural-resin varnish, applied in the nineteenth century, had become very discoloured and was therefore distorting the true colour values of the artist's palette. This was most evident in the flesh and red drapery which revealed a cooler more pinky tonality once the yellow-brown varnish was removed. The deftness of Romney's brushwork in the hair is now more evident as is the subtlety of his rendering of the flesh which had previously been somewhat obscured.

We also took the opportunity of acquiring more information about the red paint by having a sample examined under the microscope. Dispersion analysis identified dry-process vermilion combined with a red lake pigment; this red lake fluoresced pink under UV light which indicates that it could be a kermes or cochineal lake pigment.

Richard Cumberland (detail) during cleaning

Richard Cumberland (detail) after conservation

The detail on the left is another which was taken during cleaning. It is taken from the upper left hand corner of the painting which depicts the sky and clouds. What can be seen here is a 'window' of cleaned paint surrounded by an area where the discoloured varnish and overpaint has not yet been removed. We can also see some patches of early oil-retouching, now darkened, which cover old damages and which it was not possible to remove.

The sky has a different surface appearance to the rest of the painting due to the fact that in this area the paint is both thicker and is criss-crossed by a network of deep and somewhat disfiguring drying cracks. These drying cracks differ significantly from the standard, fine, age craquelure which covers the rest of the paint surface. Cross-section samples were therefore taken from various areas in an attempt to understand what had caused the paint to crack so dramatically. The samples show that the paint is built up of numerous layers and the craquelure seems to be the result of contraction of the upper paint layers -- this sometimes occurs when underlying paint has not been allowed to dry properly before further layers are applied. The cross-sections also revealed that the sky had been completely over painted with a pigmented semi-opaque layer rather like a thick glaze. This was probably applied during the nineteenth century with the intention of partially obscuring the drying craquelure.

The painting will be on display in the exhibition George Romney 1734-1802, at three venues in Britain and the USA during 2002.

Andie Gall, Conservator
Lucy Peltz, Curator, 18th Century Collections.

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