The National Portrait Gallery has discovered hidden paintings beneath Tudor portraits in the Collection. The discoveries are displayed from today as part of Hidden: Unseen Paintings Beneath Tudor Portraits in the recently remodelled Room 3; admission if free.
Recent analysis undertaken as part of the Making Art in Tudor Britain project used scientific techniques to analyse the portraits in the display to increase the understanding of the working practices of Tudor artists. The project has used infrared reflectography and x-radiography to explore the processes employed in making these portraits, which has enabled examination of the layers beneath the paint surface. It was during this technical research that hidden images behind the portraits were discovered.
X-rays revealed that underneath the portrait of the Lord Treasurer and poet Thomas Sackville (by an unknown artist in 1601), was a fully worked up version of The Flagellation of Christ painted under the surface. The composition is derived from a fresco in the Borgherini Chapel in San Pietro in Montorio, Rome by Sebastiano del Piombo after designs by Michelangelo. After the chapel’s unveiling in 1524 the artist Adamo Scultori produced an engraving and the composition became more widely known. An engraving from The British Museum is displayed alongside the x-ray of Thomas Sackville’s portrait.
Other works in the display include the NPG’s portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s Protestant spymaster and Secretary of State, which appears to have been painted over an earlier devotional depiction of the Virgin and Child. Infrared reflectography revealed there were at least three figures beneath the portrait and in x-ray it became evident that these were likely to be of the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ, with either the figure of Joseph or an angel also visible. The circumstances of the re-use of the panel are unknown and given Walsingham’s ardent religious beliefs had he known of this re-use he would not have approved. Dendrochronology (tree-ring) analysis has suggested that the panel was first used between 1547 and 1579, whilst the portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham dates to the mid 1580s. This portrait hangs alongside the technical images that revealed the secret painting and also The Virgin and Child in a Garden, style of Martin Schongauer (The National Gallery, London), which gives an impression of what the original composition may have looked like.
Dr Tarnya Cooper, Chief Curator of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says,
It has been really exciting to discover these images beneath portraits; they were unexpected and have raised some interesting questions about materials and the intentions of artists. The re-use of wooden panels is an example of Tudor recycling, which was an essential part of life in the past. And yet, the people in the portraits painted over the top were perhaps unlikely to have known the panels were second hand. In the case of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Protestant Spymaster with the Roman Catholic image of the Virgin and child beneath, you do wonder if the artist might be enjoying a private joke at the expense of the sitter.
HIDDEN: UNSEEN PAINTINGS BENEATH TUDOR PORTRAITS
3 January until 2 June 2013, at the National Portrait Gallery, London. www.npg.org.uk
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.