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Restoring the Petworth 'Beauties'

Two restored paintings of Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire, and Lady Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormond, by Michael Dahl
Two restored 'Petworth Beauties' paintings by Michael Dahl | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Two important seventeenth-century portraits, which were shortened 200 years ago to make more space on the wall, were restored to their full-length glory in 2019 and have returned to the Beauty Room for the first time in four years.

The two recently restored portraits will be on display in the Beauty Room from 6 March 2023.

Who were the Petworth 'Beauties’?

Painted by Swedish artist Michael Dahl (1659-1743) in the late 1690s, the recently restored portraits are of Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire (1636-1723) and Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormond (1664-1733) – two of the highest-ranking noblewomen in the court of William and Mary.

They are from a set of eight portraits commissioned for Petworth House at the end of the seventeenth century and displayed in what is today known as the Beauty Room.

Friends and family

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.

Dahl painted seven of the portraits, but Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1774) 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.

‘I do not want their petticoats’

In the 1820s, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, who owned Petworth, wanted more space for new art celebrating the Battle of Waterloo, in which his sons had served. He ordered that six 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 loosely interpret his instructions and the cut pieces were not thrown away but roughly reattached and then folded and tacked up behind the paintings. Their survival was only discovered nearly two centuries later when National Trust curators took them down in 1995 for conservation work.

The restoration project

Take a look behind the scenes as the two 'beauties' are taken off the wall and assessed for restoration.

The Beauty Room at Petworth House in West Sussex, with two rows of paintings on the wall and ornate chairs lined against the wall below
The Beauty Room at Petworth House | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The Beauty Room at Petworth House and Park

The Beauty Room with the portraits in their cropped state seen on the top row of paintings.

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Twenty-first century restoration

J. Dimond Conservation was given the painstaking task of carefully re-attaching the cut portions and restoring the paintings to their full glory. New wooden ‘stretchers’ supported the longer canvases from behind and the damaged areas of the paintings were restored.

‘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.’

- Tina Sitwell, former Paintings Conservation Advisor

A challenging process

The conservation experts had some challenges. One painting was cut cleanly but the other had jagged edges and both had holes where tacks had been used to hold the cut sections in place.

To re-align and seamlessly re-join the two cut pieces was a difficult and highly skilled process. Following this, the edges of the joins and holes were filled in and careful retouching took place to match the original surface.

The conservation work was funded by the National Trust with generous support from Philip Mould & Company.

The 'beauties' after their restoration

After restoration, the two paintings were exhibited in Tate Britain’s British Baroque: Power and Illusion exhibition, before being showcased in the Work in Progress: Restoring ‘Petworth’s Beauties’ exhibition at Petworth House. Please note that the artworks are now not currently on display, check back later for news on when they will be available to view again.

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