Restoring one of our largest paintings: Cleaning Van Dyck’s ‘Charles I’ | National Gallery

Restoring one of our largest paintings: Cleaning Van Dyck’s ‘Charles I’ | National Gallery


My name is Larry Keith. I’m Head of the Conservation Department and I’d like to say a little bit about the treatment of ‘Charles I on Horseback’, which you can see on its side with the cleaning largely accomplished. That treatment is being done by my colleague, Paul Ackroyd. He’ll be talking about his work in detail but I want to say a few words about the larger context in which a restoration like this takes place. We always view a treatment like this as a chance to work collaboratively with our Curatorial and Scientific colleagues to find out as much as we can in the round about the circumstances and the techniques and the materials with which any given painting is made and so, in the case of Van Dyck, it’s quite interesting to think about his use of a large canvas and the way he actually created a big picture, the way he might have worked with assistants or not, the use of the ground; all these kinds of things we’ll be exploring in detail, the levels of finish, all these things we can look at, technique and materials, and they can speak to some interesting, larger questions that I think are relevant to this picture and our understanding of how we worked in England in general. My name is Bart Cornelis, I’m the Curator of Dutch and Flemish Paintings here at the National Gallery and we’re here in front of this large equestrian portrait by Anthony van Dyck which is currently being restored. It is one of the largest paintings in the Gallery and explains why it has to go on its side because it is really too large to work on it if you have it upright. It was painted by Anthony van Dyck, who in 1632, was appointed Court Painter to Charles I and this is one of those portraits that he made during his rather long time spent here in England. It is one of only two equestrian portraits by Anthony van Dyck and it’s really exciting to have it here in the studio because one of the advantages of having it on its side is that you can actually see just how it’s painted in the upper part of the canvas which, normally, is high up and you just realise how quickly he’s painted certain passages; it always strikes me how economical 17th century Dutch or Flemish painters are in that they want to do things quickly if they can because, you know, up there no one’s going to look very closely anyway and there’s marvellous bravura in the brushwork in the upper part and, of course, it’s also very exciting because Van Dyck is the artist who brought such a breath of fresh air to painting at the Court in England, a certain swagger, as we now call it, and perhaps even a certain poetry is added to these portraits and hence he was the most successful portrait painter really of his day, certainly here and certainly on a par with other artists who brought something similar to portrait painting such as Frans Hals, Velázquez, Bernini in sculpture, Rembrandt, of course. So we’re very excited that this is now being treated and will eventually go back on display, of course, where we have it on a long vista all the way opposite another equestrian portrait by Rembrandt. I’m Paul Ackroyd, I’m one of the Conservators working here at the National Gallery and I’ve been working on the ‘Equestrian Portrait of Charles I’ by Van Dyck. I should say something about the conservation history of this, what the painting has been through: it was sold in 1650 by Cromwell at the Commonwealth sale after Charles’s death and from there it travelled to Flanders and then on to Bavaria and then came back to this country in about 1706. The painting was acquired by the Gallery in 1885 and from then very little happened to it in terms of its restoration; it was really just given a light surface cleaning to remove some surface grime and dirt and then revarnished and that happened over several occasions from 1885 right up until 1952 when the painting was last fully cleaned and restored. Considering what the painting has been through, it is in really quite remarkable condition; there aren’t that many full-scale losses. There are a few isolated ones, like these here, and there are, of course, losses across this join here because Van Dyck painted the painting on two pieces of canvas that were sewn together and this is the sewn join here but really it is in a pretty good state. There is a certain amount of abrasion of the paint that’s happened in previous cleanings, previous to 1952, probably in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is one notable piece of damage up in this corner here where you see a circular area where the paint has been worn down, right down to the canvas almost and I think what’s happened there is that they’ve mistaken a change that Van Dyck made: you can see a darker patch there where there is some evidence where Van Dyck had originally put some leaves in of the trees, that extended over where that cloud is now, then changed his mind and painted the cloud over those trees and over time that change has become more apparent and a restorer has come along and thought that a lot of that cloud paint was overpaint and taken that off in that area and then suddenly stopped when he realised that he was actually taking some of the original paint off. And you could again see here where there’s an area here, a slightly dark area here, where Van Dyck had originally put in some leaves similar to these here and then changed his mind and painted that dark cloud over the top and there is a certain amount of abrasion in this foreground here and in the landscape just underneath those trees there’s quite a large area of abrasion but really the actual horse and the portrait of Charles in his armour is in remarkably good condition. The reason why we decided to clean this painting now, even though the painting had been last been restored in 1952, is because of the materials that were used at that time had begun to discolour: the retouching had been done in ordinary artist oil paint and they had discoloured quite markedly, particularly the area of restoration in that blue sky; the colour had gone yellow and brown which had given it a rather muddy-looking colour rather than that beautiful vivid blue of the ultramarine and also the varnish that was used at that time, which was a mastic varnish, a natural resin varnish with some oil in it, had also discoloured to quite a degree and actually not just discoloured but had also gone quite milky, quite foggy, so in these dark areas you lost a lot of definition in the shapes and forms. So during the cleaning, I’ve been using, as we do when cleaning all paintings here, we use cotton wool swabs with organic solvents to remove the varnish and the old overpaint and at times we have had to engage the Scientific Department and look at areas of possible overpaint. There was some very old overpaint in this area of this sleeve here of the page which had covered up a little bit of abrasion and that had to be looked at to see what was original and what wasn’t. The cleaning process has probably taken something like five to six months thus far. There is some more cleaning to come but the cleaning process is pretty much finished. The retouching will take a great longer. It will probably take about a year to 18 months. The big areas of damage like the sky, the loss of the ultramarine blue in the sky, does not present a huge amount of difficulty in reconstruction. There are certain areas, such as that area of wear in the landscape, which is a bit more difficult to decide what to do in that area, in terms of retouching, but we can make reference to the sketch for this picture which is in the Royal Collection and refer to that; and some of the planes in the foreground will need a bit more definition during the retouching and there is some abrasion here in the horse’s tail but there aren’t any really large areas that require reconstruction. The areas such as these leaves here which look quite blue probably had a yellow lake mixed in with the blue paint which would have made it look a lot greener but that yellow lake has faded and left those plants looking quite blue and there is this area here of Charles’s thigh which we can’t really decide whether this area was ever really properly finished. There is, as you can see, this shape of this thigh is rather thin and there is a little piece of armour here at the side of the knee which is very sketchily indicated. It doesn’t look like there’s being an awful lot of abrasion of the black and dark paint in that area, there may be some, but it doesn’t really explain why that area doesn’t really work as a finished piece of painting and we’re not quite sure what this blue highlight is here, whether that’s just a fold in the cloth, whether this cloth had some kind of satin-like fabric which had a sheen to it or not, but again referring to the sketch of the painting in the Queen’s Collection will help to resolve that area when we come to do the restoration there.

9 thoughts on “Restoring one of our largest paintings: Cleaning Van Dyck’s ‘Charles I’ | National Gallery

  1. I just studied this painting in a "Timeline" documentary about the baroque (3 part, brilliant). I'll leave the link for part 1, but the discussion of this particular work is in part 3, I believe.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DHHWMOC-ZI

  2. It's seemed to function as a mural, rather than a window type view which many of standard canvas paintings of the time seemed to work as. If the detail is out of close inspection, don't bother too much about it, general painted impressions are good enough.

  3. Not an expert of horse saddles of the time, but that looks like what that blue line is part of mentioned at the end of the video.

  4. Wonderful that such an exceptional work is receiving this well-deserved attention. Pity we won’t see the finished restoration for a while, but there you are!

  5. It is always a pleasure to learn from the conservation and scientific teams. Please provide another update when the retouching is complete.

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