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John Donne by an unknown English artist (NPG 6790)

John Donne
by Unknown English artist
circa 1595
NPG 6790

Paintings can often undergo significant changes to their appearance through the addition of inscriptions and emblems, and the alteration of the background or objects in the composition. The removal or retention of such areas of large-scale overpaint is a key question when a painting undergoes conservation treatment because, whilst they can provide misleading information, they also form an important part of the object’s history. This issue can be complicated further by the circulation of photographs from before and after treatments, which can provide conflicting information to researchers who are interested in discussing the ‘original’ appearance of a work.

Just such a case was brought to the Gallery’s attention through an enquiry from Dr Sarah Howe into the conservation history of the portrait of the poet John Donne (1572-1631), which was acquired by the Gallery in 2006. The painting had been in the collection of the Marquess of Lothian and had been mis-identified as a portrait of the medieval poet John Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308) for many years before being rediscovered by John Bryson and John Woodward in the late 1950s as a portrait of John Donne. An article in The Times about the discovery (13 October 1959), described how ‘traces of books and a quill are faintly visible in the foreground’ of the painting. These objects were of great interest to scholars as they pointed to Donne’s self-presentation as a writer, and the description of the work was repeated by Geoffrey Keynes in his Bibliography of the Works of Dr John Donne in 1973. However, in September 1993 when Renaissance scholar and expert Kate Gartner Frost was given permission to see the portrait by the Marquess of Lothian, she noted to her ‘great surprise’ that:

...nowhere, under strong light and the closest examination, were Mr. Dick and I able to discern the slightest sign of the manuscript book, writing stand, inkpot and quill that feature so prominently in Keynes’ description. Rather, dimly visible, but visible all the same, is the pommel of a gentleman’s sword – a far more conventional accessory for the day and for Donne’s position at the time he sat for the portrait.

‘The Lothian Portrait: A New Description’, John Donne Journal, 13, 1994, p. 7

This raised the question of when and why the objects had been removed. The book, quill and inkpot were not mentioned by Roy Strong in his discussion of Donne’s iconography in his 1969 catalogue of Tudor and Jacobean portraits at the Gallery, and comparison of dated photographs in the Heinz Archive showed that they must have been removed between 1959 and 1961. This correlates to records that the painting underwent conservation treatment in 1961. The style and position of the objects in the earlier photograph suggests that they were later additions to the portrait, which is likely why the decision was taken to remove them. The inscription ‘John Duns’ in the upper-left corner also appears to have been removed at the same time, and was of a style that suggested it had been added in the first quarter of the eighteenth-century, when a number of inscriptions were added to paintings in the Lothian collection. Therefore, when Keynes described the painting in the 1970s he must have been working from an early photograph or from previous notes.