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Paint analysis

cross section of paint flake, greatly magnified

Cross section showing the red of the gown from Walker Art Gallery's Henry VIII. The brighter, upper layer of red is the overpaint on top of the much deeper original red

Research into the Henry VIII portraits included analysis of materials, such as pigments in the paint. Information about the paint layers is used to inform decisions about aspects of conservation treatment such as cleaning, removal of discoloured varnish and restoration.

Previous restoration can sometimes obscure or complicate the interpretation and examination of an image. Layers of varnish that have yellowed with age can distort the appearance of paint colours. Sometimes conservators find that areas have been repainted to cover damage or change the appearance of a picture.

The desire to reveal as much as possible of the original paint is a relatively new concept in conservation practice.

Original paint discovered

One of the most interesting finds was made during paint analysis of the red gown in Walker Art Gallery's portrait. It became clear early in the examination that this area was extremely thickly painted and rather opaque with crude brushwork. The suspicion was that it had been completely repainted.

Surface examination through the microscope revealed a lower layer of red, thought to be the original colour of the gown. This appeared to be lying on top of a reflective layer with a silvery appearance, possibly metal. A cross section of the paint layers was taken, and further analysis confirmed it as silver. It is thought that this silver layer underneath the paint was used on the crimson sleeves of the gown to make the paint shimmer and add to its lustrous appearance.

The combination of silver leaf and red paint is used in a number of other 16th century portraits, including the gown of the Petworth Henry VIII and the red gown in the National Portrait Gallery’s unsigned ‘Edward VI’. Interestingly, Holbein himself used this technique in the portrait of Edward, Prince of Wales in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

The paint analysis of Walker Art Gallery’s Henry VIII informed the cleaning and conservation of the painting, which has been treated and restored to reflect its former glory.