Passing the torch in painting conservation

Published: 01 April 2021

Last update: 01 April 2021

Blog post
This blog post is written by Rebecca Hellen, Senior National Conservator, Paintings Rebecca Hellen Senior National Conservator, Paintings
Christine Sitwell looking at a picture

In 2020, after a career spanning three decades, Christine (Tina) Sitwell, Paintings Conservation Adviser, retired from the Trust. Before her departure, she spent time with her successor, Rebecca (Becca) Hellen, who took up the post amid the first national lockdown due to the global health pandemic. As Becca recounts, picking up the torch from Tina has been a fascinating yet nonetheless challenging journey.

Conservation and the National Trust conjure several images: architecture, gardens, nature – and for me – the largest collection of paintings in the UK. Over the last three decades, the care and conservation of approximately 13,000 paintings has been overseen by Christine Sitwell, known to her friends and colleagues as Tina. It was my honour to be appointed her successor in early 2020.

Joining any charitable organisation as large and complex as the National Trust was always going to be daunting. Doing so in the context of a global pandemic presented an entirely new set of challenges that none of us could have anticipated. Fortunately, with Tina, it’s been a great journey.

From museums to historic houses

My professional background has been spent in museum conservation studios where I specialised in British Art from 1500 to the modern day.  At Tate Britain, where I was Senior Paintings Conservator, my studio was always in close proximity to the museum’s collection. I was accustomed to being able to easily access the paintings in my care by simply walking to the galleries or going into storage.  

This isn’t possible at the National Trust, where paintings are displayed in over 200 historic houses spread across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Often, these paintings are hanging in the rooms for which they were originally acquired centuries ago; other times the paintings form part of the physical fabric of the interior decoration scheme.   

Meeting - at a distance

As part of our formal ‘handover’ of roles, Tina and I met when Covid restrictions allowed us to travel and visit places where social distancing was possible. We met in the Derbyshire area to look at the collections at Kedleston, Sudbury and Hardwick.

At Hardwick, we stood in front of extremely rare, c.1600 painted cloths and discussed sending them for treatment at The Royal Oak Foundation Conservation Studio at Knole, Kent and the
Textile Conservation Studio on the Blickling Estate in Norfolk. In so doing, we aim to learn more about who made them, as well as when, why and how. 

One of several painted cloths, c.1600, possibly by Jehan Baleschoux, at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
Painted cloth, Hardwick
One of several painted cloths, c.1600, possibly by Jehan Baleschoux, at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire


In the Fishing Pavilion at Kedleston, we saw beautiful paintings of all things aquatic. There is a perch, a crab and other marine creatures set into the decorative scheme of this 18th-century structure which was designed as a boathouse, a plunge bath, a fishing house and a little tea house, all rolled into one. This all poses a rather challenging environment for paintings, so we discussed how best to protect these pieces and whether we might relocate them so that they can be seen by the public more often.   

Two of the fish paintings attributed to Arthur Devis, c.1772, in the Fishing Pavilion at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire
Images of fish from the walls of the pavilion at Kedleston
Two of the fish paintings attributed to Arthur Devis, c.1772, in the Fishing Pavilion at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

At Sudbury we were delighted to hear that staff had detected the profile of a face secreted behind a curtain in a 17th-century painting, perhaps a figure of a childminder or entertainer. Discoveries like this present excellent opportunities for technical examination techniques such as infrared reflectography, allowing us to see what lies beneath the surface of a painting. Might this reveal an entire figure, painted beneath the curtain? It would be a very rare find if we did.

Called Anne Vernon, Mrs Thomas Wright with her daughter Matilda Wright, later Mrs Henry Vernon as a Child, British (English) School, late 17th century, Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire
Anne Vernon, Mrs Thomas Wright
Called Anne Vernon, Mrs Thomas Wright with her daughter Matilda Wright, later Mrs Henry Vernon as a Child, British (English) School, late 17th century, Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire

A virtual induction

Working during the pandemic has meant doing most things online, including training, meeting colleagues and familiarising myself with our pictures. As part of my induction, Tina led me on a virtual tour of Kingston Lacy in Dorset, home to one of the Trust’s most important collection of paintings.  

On her tour, we discussed what happens when a painting needs to be taken off display, either for conservation treatment or to go on loan to an exhibition in another museum and gallery. We considered the challenges involved in such a move when the painting in question is particularly large, like Sebastiano del Piombo’s early 16th-century painting ‘The Judgment of Soloman’ which is nearly 1.7 metres tall and nearly 3 metres wide. We also reviewed procedures to protect our delicate interiors which are vulnerable to damage when an enormous painting needs to be rolled up and removed via a first-floor window or carried down the stairs. 

Career highlights

It was also a great time to learn about the amazing projects and discoveries made during Tina’s career. Tina’s favourite projects are those where technical analysis has aided in conservation treatment or allowed for the identification of the artist. She also enjoyed clarifying and untangling the often-confusing interaction of those commissioned to update or change the incredible interior architectural schemes that feature in so many of our houses.   

These projects range from the conservation and unfolding of the canvases of the Petworth Beauties by Michael Dahl, whose subjects’ legs had been tucked up behind their stretchers during an 1830s remodel, to the reattribution of Buckland Abbey’s Rembrandt, a self-portrait that had come under suspicion in the late 1960s. 

Tina Sitwell's top conservation projects

Looking ahead 

My areas of expertise vary but John Singer Sargent and JMW Turner are two artists I have come to know well. When restrictions ease, I look forward to seeing the costume worn by Ellen Terry for her performance of Lady Macbeth in the collection at Smallhythe Place in Kent, and which appears in Sargent’s triumphant portrait of 1889 in the Tate. And while in Kent, I also look forward to seeing Sargent’s The Game of Bowls – recently acquired for Ightham Mote – painted in the same year as the painting of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth and yet so different in feel.

John Singer Sargent, A Game of Bowls, 1889, Ightham Mote, Kent
A Game of Bowls by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent, A Game of Bowls, 1889, Ightham Mote, Kent

I recently completed a ‘virtual courier trip’ to oversee the return of Turner’s Kilgarren Castle, Pembrokeshire to Cragside in Northumberland from an exhibition abroad.

The ‘virtual courier trip’ is the latest in a series of new ways of working being practiced across the globe as arts organisations adapt to conditions imposed by the pandemic. I did online what was once done in person; I virtually supervised the assessment of the painting’s condition and observed its packing into its special casing for its journey home.

As Turner is an artist I have studied closely over the years, I am eager to see this particular painting in the flesh. One of the things that interests me is the wonderful myth that developed in Turner’s lifetime about how he finished his paintings on 'Varnishing Days' at the Royal Academy. These were days made available to artists in the exhibition space, allowing them time for a final bit of painting in the face of any neighbouring competition. Is there any evidence of Turner adjusting Kilgarren Castle, Pembrokeshire at the Royal Academy? Or, as I have come to expect, are there just modest final touches added to the surface with perhaps little real evidence left? 

JMW Turner RA (1775-1851), Kilgarren Castle, Pembrokeshire, 1798-1799, Cragside, Northumberland
Kilgarren Castle, Pembrokeshire by JMW Turner
JMW Turner RA (1775-1851), Kilgarren Castle, Pembrokeshire, 1798-1799, Cragside, Northumberland

I see paintings as ‘time-based media’ – changing from almost the moment they were begun, often expressly so, with artists choosing pigments or paints they knew would fade or change in time. Perhaps Kilgarren Castle, Pembrokeshire had a different tonal balance when first painted, or more peachy or raspberry tones in the sky and near the sunset. Or is it sunrise? Being such an early work in Turner’s career, I wonder if it is painted on one of the supports his father prepared for him – as so many of them before 1828 were. And how does it compare to the canvases in the carved room at Petworth, all created directly for the 3rd Earl, Lord Egremont, and never exhibited at the RA?

A deeper understanding of our paintings, their materials and how they might have changed from the moment of creation is inherent to the work our conservators carry out. Underlying ethics and principles guide our decision making about aesthetic treatments (where, for example, we might remove a discoloured varnish) and structural ones (where we might restore an original format).

" Underlying ethics and principles guide our decision making about aesthetic and structural treatments (for our paintings)."
- Becca Hellen, Senior National Conservator - Paintings

This brings me to the opportunities I see ahead, caring for and understanding our collections in sustainable ways, with us all enjoying the stories as they evolve. I thank Tina and everyone who supports the National Trust. There is clearly more than another thirty years’ worth of conservation and research ahead.
 
 

The Spanish Room ceiling at Kingston Lacy

Explore our art and collections 

Be inspired by the world-renowned art and collections, exhibitions and more at the many historic places that we look after.