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Rare art work by 18th Century inventor of colour printing discovered at Oxburgh Estate

Image of a team member examining the newly restored Le Blon print at Oxburgh Estate
Examining the newly restored Le Blon print at Oxburgh Estate | © Mike Hodgson

Following analysis by National Trust experts, a work of art seen by thousands of people every year here at Oxburgh has been found to be an exceptionally rare survival of a work by the inventor of colour printing, Jacob Christoff Le Blon

The portrait of the Three Eldest Children of King Charles I at Oxburgh is a copy of a well-known work by Sir Anthony van Dyck in the Royal Collection (1635-6). It had always been assumed to be oil on paper until removed and sent to the Trust’s Royal Oak Conservation Studio at Knole in Kent for analysis and assessment for conservation treatment.

Jacob Christoff Le Blon, a painter and print maker, was the first to create a three-colour printing process – the forerunner of the CMYK colour printing used today. His revolutionary method used mezzotint (a monochrome printmaking process), with separate plates inked in blue, yellow and red and superimposed on one another in order to create an endlessly variable depth of hue. Until then, artists had inked colours one beside the other on a single printing plate.

The Le Blon print returns from the Trust’s Royal Oak Conservation Studio in Knole, Kent
The Le Blon print returns from the Trust’s Royal Oak Conservation Studio in Knole, Kent | © Mike Hodgson

National Trust Curator Jane Eade said: “Van Dyck’s touchingly affectionate portrait brilliantly synthesises the grandeur of the court with the innocence of childhood and was much copied. Only three Le Blon prints of it were known to survive so to have discovered a fourth is really exciting, especially as it is the only version that remains hanging in its historic setting.”

The mezzotint needed conservation treatment which was carried out by a specialist paper conservator. Technical analysis was also undertaken to learn more about Le Blon’s techniques and the history of this particular object. The analysis has helped to identify the colours Le Blon is known to have used such as indigo and carmine or red lake. All of the versions were hand-coloured after printing, the Oxburgh version being particularly fine.

“A thick layer of 19th century varnish was particularly challenging", Jane added. “It had been applied while the work was framed and hanging on the wall of its current location. After careful testing it became apparent that it would not be possible to remove without potentially compromising the original varnish and pigments beneath. However the conservator was able to gently clean the surface layer, thinning the varnish in places and smoothing cracks to improve the picture’s appearance.”

The canvas backing was peeling in some places but, since it was likely to be the original backing used by Le Blon’s Picture Office, it was repaired and conserved rather than replaced.

The Le Blon print site on an easel, on display in the saloon at Oxburgh Hall
The Le Blon print on display in the saloon at Oxburgh Hall | © Mike Hodgson

Trained as a painter, Le Blon spent years experimenting with ink recipes and methods of engraving to mimic the effects of an oil painting.

In 1718 he moved to London where, calling himself James Christopher, he was granted a royal privilege by George I to practice his trichromatic printing. Royal patronage gave him access to Kensington Palace to copy paintings, including the Van Dyck of Charles I’s children. The demand for his works was initially high and they were considered collectable enough to be listed in wills.

It is not known for certain how and when the print came to Oxburgh Hall. Home to the Bedingfeld family who were Royalists and devout Catholics, it is possible that the print arrived at Oxburgh soon after it was created in 1721/22, in the time of the 3rd Baronet, Sir Henry Arundell-Bedingfeld (1689-1760),

Ilana van Dort, Oxburgh Collections and House Manager said: “There is now evidence that Henry Arundell-Bedingfeld was a secret Jacobite and Van Dyck’s portrayal of the children of Charles I, including the future James II the last Catholic monarch of Britain, would have great resonance and symbolism. James’ exiled son, James Francis Edward Stuart (the ‘Old Pretender’) had attempted to take the throne in the Jacobite rising of 1715 – only six years before Le Blon copied van Dyck’s original portrait.

“Copies of this painting are known to have been popular with those sympathetic to the Jacobite cause and it would have been quite feasible that the print has spent its whole life at Oxburgh, although we lack enough evidence to prove it.”

Ilana added: “The hall was renovated from the 1830s and the inventory records it as having hung in the same place beneath the staircase since at least the late 19th century. Now we have identified its origins we will give it some more attention in the coming months.”

The print will be on show here at Oxburgh alongside some astonishing 16th century textile fragments, preserved beneath the floorboards of the Hall and conserved after being found during recent building work.

The conservation of the Le Blon mezzotint and the textiles will both feature in the new series of Hidden Treasures of the National Trust which will be broadcast on Friday 10 May on BBC Two at 9pm. Oxburgh Hall features in the sixth episode, which will be available on iPlayer from 10 May.