Portrait of Henrietta Wolfe Returns to Quebec House

Recently restored oil painting of Henrietta Wolfe

After nearly half a year of TLC from our paintings conservator, our wonderfully restored painting of James’ mother, Henrietta is back with us here at Quebec House.

The Lady In The Painting

The oil painting, labelled ‘Henrietta Thompson, Mrs Edward Wolfe (1703-1764)’ shows the mother of General James Wolfe. It is attributed to George Knapton from the 18th Century.

Born Henrietta Thompson, she grew up in Yorkshire with her brother Edward, who would become a distinguished MP for York. Henrietta married Edward Wolfe in February 1724 at Long Marston, York and they soon moved to Quebec House – then called Spiers – in the summer of 1726. Together they had two children, James and Edward, but Henrietta would outlive them all.

When the National Trust acquired the painting back in 2017, it was in need of a bit of TLC to both the painting and its surrounding frame. Thanks to a donation of almost £6,000 from the Chislehurst Orpington NT Centre, we have been able to get this much needed conservation work underway. Whilst the repair work to the frame could be done on site, the actual painting needed a bit of extra care and so was sent off to our paintings conservator’s studio in February 2019.

Spot the difference!

Oil painting of Henrietta Wolfe before conservation

Before Conservation Work

You can see here the portrait of Henrietta as she was before the conservation work took place - and why it was needed - with all the colours much darker and the lighter details completely missing.

Recently restored oil painting of Henrietta Wolfe

After Conservation Work

With the thick layers of old varnish removed, the original colours as the artist would have painted them now shine through, showing the dress isn't bright yellow as previously thought.

The Frame

The work done to the frame was carried out in situ here at Quebec House, partially due to its extremely fragile and flaking gilding, so we wanted to limit moving it as much as possible. This also meant we were able to put on some Conservation in Action sessions at the beginning of 2019 to allow our visitors to watch on whilst the frames conservator worked. 

This conservation work was completed within three weeks, so the frame hung empty until the painting’s return at the end of June 2019. The frames conservator then came back in to fit the painting into the frame with the correct support and conservation backing to keep it protected.

The Painting

After a report carried out by our paintings conservator, Melanie, it was realised the condition of the painting was worse than we had realised, possibly never having been cleaned properly before. It wasn’t just one layer of varnish that needed removing and reapplying, but many. New coatings of varnish had been applied over the top of the last layer, allowing varnish to build up further and further.

This thick layer of varnish had yellowed over time and started to crack, therefore no longer doing its job of protecting the paint underneath.  It also meant we couldn’t see the colours the painter had originally intended due to the yellow lens over the canvas.  

The build-up of around 300 years of dirt and possibly smoke from fireplaces meant that once cleaned, we were able to see new details for the first time such as a green curtain as part of the background, the details in the lacework, and pearls around her arms.

Careful cleaning wipes away 300 years of damage
Patchwork cleaning of the portrait of Henrietta Wolfe showing before and after
Careful cleaning wipes away 300 years of damage

So we can continue to look after this wonderful portrait of Henrietta, the painting will soon be moving from its current home in the Study to the Drawing Room. This will also then allow us to completely redecorate the Study to explore new stories of the 18th century – keep checking back for news on that!

Once again, we have to thank the incredible efforts of the Chislehurst Orpington NT Centre, whose fundraising and generous donation allowed us to restore this painting back to look how the artist originally intended it to.

Visitors enjoying coffee

Supporter groups in Kent 

Want to help support Quebec House but can't volunteer with us directly? Join a local supporter group to help fundraise and go on plenty of National Trust trips.