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Conserving a portrait of King Edward VI

Restoring a 470-year-old painting involves careful cleaning, removing old varnish, and retouching damages. The process reveals original colors and details, like Edward's pale blue eyes and gold decorations. Materials used are reversible and lightfast to ensure future preservation. The restoration brings us closer to the artist and the time of creation. The portrait goes on display as part of The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from 12 September 2014 to 1 March 2015. Find out more about the conservation project, supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch: http://ow.ly/xSer8.

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Video transcript

With panel paintings of this age, after all it is 470 years old frequently they can be unstable the paint can flaking off often the panel support can be cracked or broken but actually for its age its remarkably well preserved Well first of all you take the painting out of its frame and you look at it in really good light, the back and the front of the painting. Then generally I look at the painting under the microscope, and under the microscope you can see all sorts of things. I realised that it was covered in a degraded and discoloured varnish and that there were many old retouchings and that the background seemed to be repainted. I’ve started cleaning it, I’ve started removing the varnish layers and you can see that on the painting at the moment there are parts where there is still a yellow layer, the face still has the discoloured varnish covering it and that’s the next thing that I will be cleaning So far I can see that there is already a big difference in the colours that you can see here There is a lovely bright pink and white shirt visible just under Edward’s chin You can also see some of this more subtle detailing in his jacket, the red modelling here and here and also the very very fine delicate shell gold decoration The painting is finished and I’ve completed my restoration As you may remember the varnish was quite discoloured and there were lots of discoloured retouchings on the painting By removing the discoloured varnish we can now see a lot more detail and modelling in the face the colours of the costume are more apparent and the background is more of a unified colour There was overpaint in all the areas of flesh painting particularly in the hands, quite crude retouching which covered original paint. There are some old flaking damages in these areas and by removing the overpaint I have actually revealed a little bit more of the original paint. The collar was over painted you can see that there is a very fine transparent white layer around the edge of the this pink collar and I think a previous restorer obviously felt that this line was a bit messy or couldn’t understand it in terms of what the costume was and so this was actually overpainted with quite crude restoration We also have this little triangular section in the top left-hand corner which is a complete loss in the painting There is a section of wood which has been joined to the original painting and the green colour on this section is a different green to the rest of the painting and we know from our analysis that the pigment is based on Prussian Blue which is a pigment which was only invented in the eighteenth century so we know that that the triangular section in the top left hand corner the earliest it can date from is the eighteenth century so it’s not a mend that was carried out at some point close to the manufacture of this painting All the materials that we use are reversible as far as we can tell and so far as our scientific testing can tell. We wouldn’t be using any materials which we felt were going to be difficult to remove in the future, and all the materials we use are hopefully light fast so they won’t change too much in the future. You have to have as light a touch as possible, particularly with a portrait You don’t want to apply a lot of overpaint, you want to actually just retouch the actual damages, the losses, in as delicate and subtle a manner as possible, so that you are reintegrating any damage or abrasion, or loss and not actually applying something which is potentially your own interpretation Applying the gold for the retouching was quite tricky I wanted to use real gold, I wanted to use the materials that were use in the painting. I could have in fact retouched using a yellow ochre pigment such as this which restorers sometimes use to mimic gold, but in fact I decided to use real gold leaf and I applied that in tiny little sections by putting a little bit of resin underneath and then sticking the gold on top and then glazing it in the same manner as the artist. For the linear decoration the artist used a type of gold which was called shell gold, that’s ground up real gold powder ground in a gum, and it’s called shell gold because originally it was held in a little shell. The eyes were the most difficult area of the painting to retouch there are quite a few cracks and damages here and the pupils were damaged and over retouched, so the actual black retouching in the pupil went over these very very pale blue eyes that Edward was known to have had actually So I had to remove all the retouching from the eyes and then very carefully just put in the very minimum amount of black, blue and brown for the eyelashes and the shading as I could get away with, literally the minimum, and sometimes I had to take it off if it felt too heavy and put it back again just to get to that point where I felt I had dealt with the damages and that the eyes worked again The conservation profession is enormously multi-layered and that’s what makes it challenging and fascinating to me, but ultimately I still get a real kick out of taking an object such as this off a museum wall, bringing it back into a studio environment taking it out of the frame, handling it, examining it really closely and by doing so I just feel much closer to the artist and to the time it was created