Paintings of 'Petworth Beauties' have their legs restored

'Petworth Beauty' in the conservation studio

Paintings of two ladies of Queen Anne’s court, which were shortened 200 years ago to make more space on the wall, are being restored to their full glory by the National Trust for an exhibition at Tate Britain next year.

The two paintings by Michael Dahl will appear in Tate Britain’s British Baroque: Power and Illusion exhibition from 5 February – 19 April 2020. Meanwhile you can see the remaining 'Beauties' in their original room at Petworth.

Vibrant colours being revealed by conservation work
Vibrant colours being revealed by conservation work
Vibrant colours being revealed by conservation work

Paintings of two ladies of Queen Anne’s court, which were shortened 200 years ago to make more space on the wall, are being restored to their full glory by the National Trust for an exhibition at Tate Britain next year.

The paintings, by the artist Michael Dahl, of Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire and Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormonde, two of the highest-ranking noblewomen at court, are from a set of eight portraits commissioned for the ‘Beauty Room’ at Petworth House in Sussex at the end of the seventeenth century. All eight women were part of the close circle of cousins and friends of the 6th Duke and Duchess of Somerset, who rebuilt Petworth House into a Baroque palace.

One of the 'Petworth Beauties', Lady Mary Somerset Duchess of Ormonde
Painting of Lady Mary Somerset Duchess of Ormonde
One of the 'Petworth Beauties', Lady Mary Somerset Duchess of Ormonde

In the 1820s, then owner of Petworth House, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, wanted more space for some new art works celebrating the Battle of Waterloo in which his sons had served. He ordered that six of the paintings of the so-called ‘Beauties’ be cut to three-quarter length, declaring: ‘I will cut off their legs, I do not want their petticoats.’

Fortunately, the Earl’s workers chose to interpret his instructions slightly differently and the cut pieces of the canvasses were not discarded but roughly reattached and then folded and tacked up behind the paintings. Their survival was only discovered nearly two centuries later when Trust curators took them down in 1995 for some conservation work.

Beauty Room at Petworth House
Beauty Room at Petworth House
Beauty Room at Petworth House

Now, ahead of the loan of two of the paintings to Tate Britain, J. Dimond Conservation have been given the painstaking task of carefully re-attaching the cut portions and restoring the paintings to their full glory. New wooden ‘stretchers’ will support the longer canvas from behind and damaged areas of the paintings will be restored.

Tina Sitwell, the National Trust’s Paintings Conservation Adviser explains:

‘It is quite unusual for paintings to be cut and the pieces then folded up behind them in this way. It may well be that having cut the paintings, somebody decided to save the pieces to allow the paintings to be restored in the future. We’ll never know for sure, but to have the missing sections, and this rare chance at last to restore them, is tremendously exciting.’

" It may well be that having cut the paintings, somebody decided to save the pieces to allow the paintings to be restored in the future. We’ll never know for sure."
- Tina Sitwell

‘The conservation experts will have some challenges. One painting was cut cleanly but the other has jagged edges and both have holes where tacks were used to hold the cut sections in place. To re-align and seamlessly re-join the two cut pieces will be a highly skilled and difficult structural treatment. Following this, the edges of the joins and any holes will require filling and careful retouching to match the original surface.

‘But the cut pieces have otherwise survived well and our cleaning tests have shown that the paintings will be transformed, and will look bright and colourful after the work is completed.’

Seven of the eight paintings of of aristocratic ladies were painted in the late 1690s by Michael Dahl (1659–1743), a Swedish artist who worked in London. The eighth, of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, the notorious favourite of Queen Anne, is by the court painter Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723). 

Six were originally full-length portraits but the other two, hung above doorways, were always three-quarter length. 

" The pictures would have had tremendous impact in their day and were regarded as one of the sights of Petworth."
- Tabitha Barber

Tabitha Barber, curator at Tate Britain said: ‘The Dahls at Petworth are among the artist’s very best works and we always knew that we would want to include an example of them in our exhibition, hopefully in their original full-length format. That the National Trust has agreed to embark on this ambitious conservation programme is truly exciting. 

‘The pictures would have had tremendous impact in their day and were regarded as one of the sights of Petworth. In the exhibition we will be recreating an element of their original display, with full length mirrors in between them. They would have reflected candlelight and allowed viewers the novelty of catching a glimpse of themselves in full-length alongside the ‘beauties’. The room advertised the wealth, taste and private networks of the Duke and Duchess of Somerset and we couldn’t be more delighted to be able to bring this element of magnificent display to our exhibition.’

'Petworth Beauties' being taken down for conservation by experts
'Petworth Beauties' being taken down for conservation by experts
'Petworth Beauties' being taken down for conservation by experts

David Taylor, the National Trust’s Pictures & Sculpture Curator, and co-curator of the Tate Britain exhibition, said:

‘The significance of the ‘Beauties’ as part of the extraordinary picture collection at Petworth cannot be overestimated. They have been displayed in the heart of the house since the 1690s, originally as part of the wider Baroque scheme in the Beauty Room for which they were commissioned. 

‘The 6th Duke of Somerset frequently dined in the room and hosted important visitors including Charles VI, future Holy Roman Emperor ’Holy Roman Emperor, where they would have been surrounded by the portraits looking down on them.. We hope that visitors to Tate’s exhibition will enjoy seeing them there, and once they return to Petworth, that they can be appreciated in their magnificent original historic setting.’

One of the 'Petworth Beauties', Rachel Russell Duchess of Devonshire
Painting of Rachel Russell Duchess of Devonshire
One of the 'Petworth Beauties', Rachel Russell Duchess of Devonshire

The paintings will appear in Tate Britain’s British Baroque: Power and Illusion exhibition from 5 February – 19 April 2020. This will be the first ever exhibition to focus on baroque culture in Britain. From the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the exhibition will explore the rich connections between art and power in this often-overlooked era. The show will include many new discoveries and works shown in public for the first time, many on loan from the stately homes for which they were originally made.