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Conserving Rufford’s 17th century painting

Image of the Exotic Landscape painting by Gommaert van der Gracht
Extensive Landscape painting by Gommaert van der Gracht | © ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

A project is underway to conserve Rufford’s 17th century Extensive Landscape with Exotic Flowers painting by Gommaert van der Gracht. As the project progresses over the next 12 months, learn about the conservation techniques involved to restore this exquisite piece of art.

Project overview

The treasured painting is a key piece in the collection at Rufford Old Hall and is undoubtably a fascinating and dramatic piece of artwork. A 2018 survey revealed that the painting was in urgent need of remedial conservation, and in 2022 we were granted a successful bid for remedial conservation funding. Over the next 12 months it will receive treatment by professionally trained conservators at the International Fine Art Studio in Bristol.

The need for conservation

On inspection, the conservators noticed potential issues with the canvas and fragile paint. The canvas was no longer in plane and was loose and distorted, putting stresses in the aged and rigid paint film contributing to the cracking and lifting of the paint layers. The canvas had lost tension, likely due to a broken stretcher bar (the supporting frame structure for the canvas), and continued cycles of expansion and contraction in response to variations in the environment.

The image itself was difficult to read due to old degraded and discoloured varnish and discoloured overpaint. The varnish had increased in opacity and turned yellow, and the old retouchings had darkened, limiting the appreciation of subtle colour tones and fine details and the sense of pictorial space and perspective.

17th century Extensive Landscape with Exotic Flowers painting by Gommaert van der Gracht in the dining room at Rufford Old Hall featured in a 1929 Country Life magazine article
Extensive Landscape painting featured in a 1929 October edition of the Country Life magazine | © Country Life Magazine

The importance of the painting

This painting is one of Rufford's greatest treasures, particularly as we know that it was acquired by the Hesketh family during their residence at Rufford Old Hall. Although we don’t know a great deal about how or why the Hesketh’s acquired it, it is undoubtably a fascinating and dramatic piece of artwork which gives us a glimpse into the tastes and collecting style of the family during the early 20th century.

The earliest definitive recording of the painting is based on a feature of Rufford Old Hall in the 1929 Country Life October edition. The photograph of the dining room shows the painting, ‘An Extensive Landscape with Exotic Flowers, Fruit and Vegetables, a Goat and a 'Noli me tangere' in the Garden beyond’ hanging on the west wall.

The artist

The painting is one of Gommaert van der Gracht’s finest and most documented works. Little is known about the artistic career of Gommaert van der Gracht, other than that he trained under Michiel Coxie the Younger (son of Michiel Coxie, one of the leading Flemish Renaissance painters). Gracht was one of the Flemish Baroque painters influenced by the works of  Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck.

As an artist he specialised in landscapes and still lifes and often combined the two, setting a still life scene within a landscape painting. His still lifes include market and kitchen scenes as well as fruit and game works. There are very few paintings by his hand known to exist although his oeuvre has expanded during recent years through new attributions.

Conservation Timeline

March 2023

Painting Analysis

Elsa Guerreiro, Director at International Fine Art Conservation Studios Ltd, highlights the issues surrounding the canvas and paint layers which required immediate attention. Here she also explains the enjoyment in watching the stages of transformation throughout the conservation process.

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