Diana Cecil’s lips restored to former thin splendor

Restoration of a 17th century portrait of Diana Cecil, great-granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth I’s chief advisor William Cecil, has revealed her original thin upper lip and high forehead, removing the overpaint that had artificially plumped her pucker and lowered her hairline. The conservation also revealed the signature of the artist and the date hidden in the folds of the curtain: Cornelius Johnson, 1634.

The portrait is one of two of Diana Cecil in The Suffolk Collection, a group of 400 works, many portraits of aristocrats and royals but also other masterpieces by the likes of Vermeer, Turner and Rembrandt, amassed by the Howard family from the 17th to the 20th century. Diana’s sister Elizabeth was married to a Howard, which is how the portraits came to be in the collection. The greatest portraits of The Suffolk Collection are nine full-length pieces by the premiere Jacobean portraitist William Larkin, one of which is a 1614 portrait of Diana Cecil painted when she was about 15 years old. Her high forehead and fine upper lip are in evidence even at that young age.

Diana Cecil was considered one of the great beauties of the Jacobean nobility. She married twice, first to Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford, in 1624, barely a year before his death, and again in 1629 to Thomas Bruce, who would be created 1st Earl of Elgin by King Charles I in 1633. The newly-restored portrait of Diana was made the year after her husband received that rich favor.

In the later portrait, Cecil wears a fashionable blue satin bodice and full, trailing skirt. In contrast to the earlier portrait, elite fashion is characterised by understated elegance, rather than opulently patterned fabric or complicated layering, English heritage said.

Plain silk, satin or taffeta were the height of fashion, with one or two focal points, such as the red ribbons laced across the front of Cecil’s bodice, holding the stomacher in place, and a matching red rose at her breast and a patterned fan, which she holds half-open in front of her.

The Suffolk Collection is displayed at Kenwood House, a stately neoclassical villa in Hampstead administered by English Heritage. The later portrait of Diana Cecil recently underwent conservation so that it could be put on display. It had suffered significantly from having been rolled up widthways, damaging the paint surface, and old varnish had yellowed, dimming the once-brilliant colors. The removal of the old varnish uncovered the touch-ups to her lips and hair, likely made in the late 19th or early 20th century in a failed attempt to repair some of the damage from the rolling and update her looks in keeping with beauty standards of the time while they were at it.

Alice Tate-Harte, collections conservator (fine art) at English Heritage, said in a press release: “As a paintings conservator I am often amazed by the vivid and rich colours that reveal themselves as I remove old, yellowing varnish from portraits, but finding out Diana’s features had been changed so much was certainly a surprise!

“While the original reason for overpainting could have been to cover damage from the portrait being rolled, the restorer certainly added their own preferences to ‘sweeten’ her face. I hope I’ve done Diana justice by removing those additions and presenting her natural face to the world.”

The restored portrait of Diana Cecil will go on display next to the portrait of her second husband Thomas Bruce at Kenwood House on November 30th.

London workhouse had painted walls, fireplaces

The remains of an early 19th century London workhouse suggest that it did not start out the bleak, uncomfortable environment so vividly described by Charles Dickens and other Victorian writers. The plastered walls were painted a soothing light blue; the rooms were heated with fireplaces; even hot water bottles were available.

Since early this year, archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have been excavating the two-acre site before construction of a new state-of-the-art ophthalmology center. It is part of a five-acre site that includes St. Pancras Hospital, originally St. Pancras Workhouse, named after the neighboring Church of St. Pancras in what was then a suburb of London.

The workhouse was built in 1809 to accommodate 500 indigent people, often families. An infirmary was added three years later, and by the middle of the 19th century, the population of the workhouse had increased more than threefold, fluctuating between 1,500 and 1,900 at its peak. Additions to the workhouse and infirmary were built to keep up with the number of residents. The workhouse was finally shut down in 1929 and its surviving buildings folded into the hospital.

As the name suggests, the idea of the workhouse was that the state would provide relief to the poverty-stricken in the form of a roof over their heads and enough food to survive in exchange for their unpaid labor. Church parishes were part of the administration of relief initially and there was some flexibility in the treatment of indigent families and individuals. That came to an end with the 1834 Poor Law.

By the 1830s, conditions inside the workhouses were dangerous, cramped and prison-like. Infectious diseases were rampant, beds were crammed into every possible space and inmates worked long hours on industrial production lines. Other means of relief, like parish disbursements that did not require institutionalization, were discouraged and the poor encouraged to sell whatever scraps they still owned to be allowed into the workhouse. Children were separated from their parents and the workhouses turned to profitable enterprise administered by businessmen. All workhouse inmates, adults and children, were assigned to painful, repetitive hard labor like crushing bone to make fertilizer, or picking oakum.

The area currently being investigated was known to have had some workhouse structures, but they did not survive. They were damaged in the Blitz and demolished after World War II. The MOLA team has been excavating the site where these buildings once stood and expected to find their foundations, ground floors and associated artifacts.

The new evidence suggests the St Pancras workhouse may have started out with a greater interest in support than deterrence. Williams said: “While the facilities are spartan, the inmates were not there to be punished … There were gardens, an infirmary and nursery. These acknowledge their needs as much as the heated rooms, or the pale blue paint on the walls.”

The finds include institutional crockery – with plates bearing an image of St Pancras and the words “Guardians of the Poor St Pancras Middlesex” – and the remains of a bone toothbrush with horsehair bristles, suggesting the importance of personal hygiene.

Inmate hygiene, comfort and even basic needs like a modicum of heat fell by the wayside after the Poor Law and the explosion of the population at St. Pancras. Henry Morley, a friend and collaborator of Charles Dickens, mentioned St. Pancras Workhouse in an article entitled The Frozen-Out Poor Law published in Dickens’ publication All the Year Round in February, 1861:

A woman, during the intense frost, was met in the evening carrying home her weekly quartern loaf from Saint Pancras Workhouse. (Was it not there that guardians of the poor, not long ago, excited wrath among parishioners by putting themselves on the parish for hot dinners at their weekly meetings?). The woman was met shivering with cold; she had been waiting for her dole, from twelve o’clock till half-past four, in a room with a stone floor, which she declared had not been warmed in any way. “I could have stood it better,” she said, “if there hadn’t been such a dreadful could draught from them wentilating places all round the floor.” The “ventilators” out of which the cold blast came, were the pipes of the disused warming apparatus. If was desirable to use that apparatus for the benefit of paupers, even when the thermometer wavered between freezing and zero. […]

A vestryman is asked whether this woman’s story, not the first or the tenth of its kind, could be true ; were the poor really exposed to so much suffering when they came for relief? “Yes,” he replied, ” and wilfully. I have tried to effect a change, but only three would side with me. The rest thought that if the poor creatures were made too comfortable, more would come.” We take our illustration from St. Pancras simply because it is natural for anybody to look to St. Pancras of evil repute, when he wishes to lay his hand on any sort of abuse incident to the administration of the Poor Law. But the illustration serves for the whole system, which makes workhouses discouragements to poverty, and gaols encouragements to crime.

Fiend emerges from restored Joshua Reynolds painting

A demonic imp has re-emerged from a Joshua Reynolds painting after restorers removed layers of overpaint and discolored varnish. The large-scale painting (about seven feet high and five feet wide) in the collection of Petworth House and Park in West Sussex, is one of four works by Joshua Reynolds to be restored in honor of the 300th anniversary of his birth.

Commissioned in 1789 by the Shakespeare Gallery in London’s Pall Mall, the painting depicts the death of Cardinal Beaufort from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2. In the play, Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester and Henry VI’s great-uncle, is a Bad Guy who conspires with the Earl of Suffolk against the Good Guy Duke of Gloucester. Suffolk’s schemes include spurring Gloucester’s wife to summon the evil spirit Asmath to foretell the fates of the major players before the “false fiend” is dispatched back “to darkness and the burning lake.”

Two acts later, Beaufort is writhing on his deathbed, tortured by his guilt over Gloucester’s murder. King Henry asks that God take pity on Beaufort and “beat away the busy meddling fiend/That lays strong siege unto this wretch’s soul….”

Reynolds shows the cardinal in his death throes, clutching the bedding, while Henry raises his hand to God. Warwick and Salisbury watch in the background. The fiend, monstrous with long, sharp teeth and deformed facial bone structure, lurks behind Beaufort’s pillow.

Reynolds’ choice to paint a literal devil into the scene caused much controversy at the time. Critics took umbrage at the presence of a character not present in the play itself. The king’s comment referred to an inner demon torturing the dying man, not an actual devil cackling over his head. People tried to get Reynolds to paint it out, and later prints of the work did remove the imp, but Reynolds, by then at the end of his career and less than three years from the end of his life, could not be talked out of his vision by critical opinion.

The painting was sold along with the Shakespeare Gallery’s whole collection in 1805. It was acquired by the 3rd Earl of Egremont and has been at Petworth ever since. Today the estate is managed by the National Trust and the painting was conserved by its experts. The cleaning and removal of previous interventions and thick layers of yellow varnish took six months. When it was completed, the fiend, long since swallowed by the darkening shadows, reappeared, as did the details of the facial expressions and Reynold’s original color palette.

Becca Hellen, the Trust’s Senior National Conservator for paintings, said the amount of overpaint was considerable: “Reynolds is always difficult for conservators because of the experimental way he worked, often introducing unusual materials in his paint medium, striving for the effects he wanted to achieve. The painting was lined, with an extra layer of canvas applied to the back, in the 19th century and at that time too much heat would have been applied.

“The area with the fiend was especially difficult. Because it is in the shadows, it was painted with earth browns and dark colours which would always dry more slowly, causing shrinkage effects. With Reynolds resinous and waxy mediums and pigments not aiding drying of the paint it was no surprise that the area of the fiend was a challenge. With the layers added by early restorers it had become a mess of misinterpretation and multiple layers of paints.”

Becca Hellen continued: “This is a large painting and we wanted to ensure that it still represented what Reynolds originally painted, which included allowing the fiend to be uncovered, through removing all the non-original darkened varnishes and ensuring it still correctly showed its form and perspective with the work we did.”

World War II experimental airplane catapult rediscovered

A prototype of a World War II airplane bomber catapult has been excavated by a team from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) in Harwell, Oxfordshire. The site is slated for a new development of the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, and the existence of the catapult was known from historical records, but as a failed experiment shut down in 1941, it was not documented in detail, so MOLA archaeologists were enlisted to reveal its secrets. This is the first time the catapult has seen the light and been studied in detail since early in the war.

Design work began on the catapult in 1935, the year Germany rearmed in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. After three years of planning, catapult construction began in 1938, the year Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. It was completed in 1940, the year of the Battle of Britain when 3,000 men of the Royal Air Force kept control of British skies under the brutal onslaught of Hitler’s Luftwaffe.

The advantages to catapulting a bomber plane into the air included saving the fuel expended in takeoff and requiring a much shorter runway than the conventional variety. Even after this project was shut down, the idea of the airplane catapult survived and was deployed with success to launch aircraft from ships.

The circular central pit, 10 feet deep and 100 feet in diameter, contained most of the catapult’s machinery and engines. The catapult was powered by 12 Rolls-Royce Kestrel aero engines which took up all that space in the pit, hence its depth and breadth. Above the mechanics a turntable was mounted into a slot at the top of the pit’s wall. Two concrete runway channels extended 270 feet north and south from the pit.

The way it was supposed to work was that airplanes would drive onto the turntable which would turn towards one of two runway arms extending north and south. On the south arm, the plane would be hooked onto an underground pneumatic ram would be driven down the channel by a blast of compressed air from the 12 Rolls Royce engines. The plane was supported by a trolley on wheels. The ram would drag the plane to top speed at ground level and launch it into the air. The north runway arm has a different design, perhaps for experimental purposes, which archaeologists are still studying to determine how it was meant to be used.

In the end, the Mark III catapult was ever used. Only the prototype was built, and it failed in big ways. Its engines kept wearing out, and most bumblingly, the design did not actually fit the bomber planes that already existed. It never successfully launched a single plane. In 1941, it was filled in and a conventional airstrip built on top.

The construction work at the site will continue and the catapult remains have been dismantled, alas. Before it was removed, the catapult facility was thoroughly photographed and scanned and a 3D digital replica created for future research.

19th c. fishing boat recovered from downtown St. Augustine

State construction crews in St. Augustine, Florida, have discovered a 19th century shipwreck during road work near the Bridge of Lions. The well-preserved boat was found nearly intact on October 5th by Florida Department of Transportation (FDoT) personnel working on a drainage improvement project in downtown St. Augustine.

Before construction began, archaeological contractors were employed to oversee the work due to St. Augustine’s historic status as the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States with a Native American history that long predates that. Southeastern Archaeological Research (SEARCH) archaeologists excavated the ship, revealing a single-masted, shallow-draft vessel that was originally about 28 feet long, 19 feet of it surviving. It was likely a fishing boat used to collect fish and shellfish in shallow coastal waters.

Archaeologists believe the ship may have been built and operated by its owners, perhaps a family. When it was at the end of its fishing career, it was abandoned in the shallows of the bay. Buried by sediments on the shoreline, the ship was rapidly encapsulated by mud which preserved the wood. Also preserved were artifacts like parts of an oil lamp, coins and a pair of leather shoes that are shaped for a left and right foot, a design that only came into use in the mid-1800s.

As soon as it was exposed, the fragile wooden ship was at risk of rapid deterioration. The team kept the timbers wet to keep them from drying out during the process of fully excavating the boat. The wreck was meticulously documented, measured and mapped by hand, before the boat was extracted plank by plank. The salt water had corroded the iron nails that kept the planks together which made it easier for archaeologists to dismantle the hull in a systematic “reverse construction.”

The planks will now be stabilized in wet storage. The ultimate goal is to put it on display in a local museum.