Art explainer: what can science tell us about Tudor portraits?

What secrets, surprises and insights can scientific techniques help us discover about the oldest portraits in the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection?

Conservation specialists at the National Portrait Gallery use a range of tools and techniques to make discoveries about and take care of the paintings. Members of the conservation team share secrets discovered using scientific techniques that help them to see beneath the surface of some of the Gallery’s most important paintings.


  • What can science tell us about Tudor portraits?

    We can discover all sorts of fascinating details about portraits painted hundreds of years ago, using a range of scientific techniques.

    Technical analysis can help establish how old a portrait is, as well as revealing the artist’s process in creating it.

    I’m Charlotte Bolland, and I’m Senior Curator for Research and 16th Century Collections.

    We can use a range of scientific techniques here in the conservation studio at the Gallery, including x-radiography, infrared reflectography, photo-microscopy, and we can also bring in specialist expertise in some subjects such as dendrochronology, which is tree ring dating.

    Scientific analysis is incredibly useful because it gives us a means of often seeing beneath the surface of a painting and of understanding the materials and techniques that an artist used to create a painting.

    And this can help us to date works and make attributions, and also informs the conservation treatments.

    The ‘Phoenix’ portrait of Elizabeth I is in remarkably good condition, and it dates from around 1575.

    But when it came into the studio, we could see that it had a really discoloured varnish.

    And this also had become sort of hazy and had a texture to it that really flattened the composition and obscured the kind of colours and the brightness.

    And so that was the primary role of the conservation was to remove the layers of this discoloured varnish, that had built up over time.

    The Tudor paintings are hundreds of years old, and so it’s really important to think about what it might have looked like when it was first made, because over time, varnishes can discolour and become cracked.

    Pigments can fade or be abraded, panels can crack, and the structure of the painting can be changed over time.

    And so it’s really important to be aware that the object, as you’re looking at it now, has had a whole life history before.

    Photo-microscopy is one of the key tools for just close looking, and you can never sort of stop looking at a painting, you can always learn something new.

    And you can also use photo-microscopy to identify pigments, sometimes if you zoom really closely in because they have their very distinctive structure, so you can identify the materials just by looking at it.

    Using x-radiography, you can really see the white area in her face, which is built up, which gives that really kind of luminous colour to her tones and also some changes in the position of her fingers that were made during the painting process.

    From infrared reflectography, you get a really clear idea of the preparatory drawing layers that were made in, and in the ‘Phoenix’ portrait of Elizabeth, this is really interesting because you can see that the face pattern was moved.

    The artist painted the face and then clearly felt that there was something wrong with it – it didn’t quite work – and so they repainted it, moving the eyes up and to the left.

    You can see coming through to the surface, this second hidden face beneath is now becoming slightly visible.

    Through scientific analysis and painstaking work, conservation specialists are able to uncover the secrets hidden in the National Portrait Gallery’s Tudor portraits and ensure they are kept for future generations to study and enjoy.

Learning objectives

  1. Discover some of the tools and techniques used in art conservation.
  1. Consider how they can be used to help us find out about artists’ processes and techniques.

Watch and discuss

  1. How can science be used to help us learn about artworks?
  1. Why is it useful for artists and historians to understand Tudor artists’ processes, and the techniques and materials they used?
  1. Why might it be useful to know how paintings have changed over time?