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Conserving Quebec House’s paintings

General James Wolfe as a young man oil on canvas portrait by Benjamin West, at Quebec House, Kent
General James Wolfe as a young man oil on canvas portrait by Benjamin West, at Quebec House | © National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

Among the historic collections at Quebec House are several paintings – including portraits of Henrietta Wolfe, James Wolfe and George Warde – that required the expertise of our conservators. Now that the work has been done, the original colours and details shine through once again and they can be enjoyed by our visitors as they would have originally looked.

Portrait of Henrietta Wolfe

The oil painting on display at Quebec House, labelled ‘Henrietta Thompson, Mrs Edward Wolfe (1703-1764)’ shows the mother of General James Wolfe and is attributed to George Knapton.

When the National Trust acquired it in 2017, both the painting and its frame needed attention. Thanks to a donation of almost £6,000 from the Chislehurst Orpington NT Centre, we were able to get this much-needed conservation work done.

Conserving the painting

Our paintings conservator, Melanie, discovered 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.

The varnish had yellowed over time and started to crack, so was no longer protecting the paint underneath. It also meant we couldn’t see the colours the painter had originally intended. After the removal of around 300 years of dirt, we were able to see new details for the first time.

Restoring the frame

The work done to the frame was carried out at Quebec House, partially due to its extremely fragile and flaking gilding. We were able to put on some Conservation in Action sessions to allow our visitors to watch while the frames conservator worked.

Once work was completed on the painting, the frames conservator fitted it into the frame with the correct support and conservation backing to keep it protected.

18th-century portrait of a young dark-haired woman in a white dress showing patches where the varnish has been removed
A portrait of Henrietta Wolfe portrait during the conservation process, now on display at Quebec House, Kent | © National Trust/Melanie Caldwell

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 lighter details, previously hidden beneath the varnish, can now be clearly seen, such as a green curtain as part of the background, the details in the lacework, and pearls around her arms.

James Wolfe and George Warde paintings

With the help of The Art Fund, Quebec House purchased two Georgian paintings connected to General Wolfe and his childhood home. Both portraits are the work of Benjamin West, a founder member of the Royal Academy, and depict military hero James Wolfe and his lifelong friend George Warde, who lived at neighbouring Squerryes Court.

A lifelong friendship

These paintings allow this tale of friendship to be seen and help create the connection with the young Wolfe and his childhood in Westerham, which is central to the story at Quebec House. George commissioned these two companion paintings; ‘Portrait of George Warde (1725-1803)’ and ‘Portrait of General James Wolfe (1732-1759)’, which were completed in 1777 by West, several years after Wolfe’s death.

Conserving West's work

Over the past 250 or so years, the varnish on both oil paintings had become yellowed and cracked. In some areas, the paint beneath it had become raised and cracked leading to small losses, particularly on the portrait of George Warde.

Our conservator got to work, removing the deteriorating varnish. Surface treatment was required due to the flaking paint. Any paint losses were stabilised to stop any possible further flaking, before a new coat of varnish was applied. On the posthumous portrait of General Wolfe, there was a small dent and tear to the canvas, which was carefully mended and restored.

18th-century portrait of a young man against a formal backdrop of drapes and sky, having just opened a cage with a bird flying above his head to the right
A portrait of George Warde by Benjamin West | © National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

The paintings restored

It's fantastic to see the difference this conservation work has had on the paintings, which are now full of life and colour. The detailing around the bird cage and colours in the background are particularly vibrant now, and the new varnish will help protect the painting over the coming years.

Thank you

With thanks to our specialist conservators, the Chislehurst Orpington NT Centre and your support, these three paintings can now be enjoyed and appreciated by visitors for many more years to come.

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Death of Wolfe by George Roth Jr, 1784. At Quebec House, Westerham, Kent

The history of Quebec House 

Find out about the life of General James Wolfe, who led British forces to victory at the Battle of Quebec, from where this Georgian house takes its name.

A view inside the Drawing Room at Quebec House, Kent, which has dark wood panelling on the walls and patterned rugs on the floor. A comfortable chair and sofa are arranged in front of a fireplace and three oil portraits hang in gold frames on the wall above.

Things to see and do at Quebec House 

Explore this Georgian town house where General James Wolfe grew up. Discover information about his military life, including the Battle of Quebec after which the house is named.