Conservation of the Grisaille Paintings

Sally Woodcock carefully conserving a Grisaille painting © Paul Bailey

Sally Woodcock carefully conserving a Grisaille painting

At Blickling, we are fortunate enough to house a substantial number of fine and unique works of art. Conserving their life span for future generations to enjoy is what makes our conservation team thrive, and is placed at the very heart of what we do at the National Trust.

Due to donations from Ashford Trust and the Norfolk Centre, we have been able to preserve a series of five Grisailles paintings by artist Francis Hayman - one of the founding members of the Royal Academy. The paintings are significant due to their type, with the word ‘Grisailles’ referring to the greyish, monochrome colour scheme used. A Grisailles painting may be created for its own sake, or used as an underpainting for the artist to later finish in colour. In the case of Blickling’s collection of five Francis Hayman Grisailles, little is known about their original use, other than they used to hang in the library, but we know they are very much of their time. The fashion in the early 18th Century was to hint towards classicism and antiquity, and the Grisailles resemble the frescos and marble reliefs that were popular at this time. What is particularly interesting is that, despite the changes in fashion, with a move towards the Arts and Crafts period towards the later part of the 18th Century, these paintings have stood the test of time, and remained as valued pieces throughout their lifespan.

Preserving these paintings for future generations is particularly important. The challenge with conservation is to improve and prolong the life of a painting, without changing too much of its surface characteristics - as this would mean removing elements of the painting’s history.

The conservation of these five works has taken two forms; consolidating the paintwork, and also stabilising the frames. Conserving the paintwork has been especially challenging due to the fact the surface is unvarnished and the paint is quite matt; Hayman is thought to have used a higher proportion of pigment to oil to replicate the look and feel of stonework, and this has resulted in it being very porous. The canvas itself is also unlined. This means any cleaning liquid or glue inevitably soaks through the thirsty surface, and can easily discolour the paintwork. Conservators Sally Woodcock and Polly Saltmarsh have consolidated the painting, by filling in any surface cracking with specialist glue and using a hot air blower pen kindly borrowed from Willard Conservation Ltd to set this in place. Once consolidated Sally used deionised water to lightly clean the surface of the painting, gently removing excess dirt and debris caused by insects and bats.

The money donated has also helped to carry out preventative conservation to the frames to ensure that they fully support the canvases. Firstly they were treated for woodworm. Balsa wood spacers have been inserted between the frame and canvas to prevent the canvas from moving around. It also ensures easy access to the canvasses in the future; minimising potential damage caused by needing to remove the paintings from their frames. Interestingly, it’s been assumed that these black frames with gilded edges are original, but white flecks of paint seen on the sides of the canvas (only visible when the paintings are removed from their frame) perhaps suggest that the frames were actually white originally.