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Conserving a rare Tintoretto

The Wise and Foolish Virgins, a painting by Tintoretto at Upton House
The Wise and Foolish Virgins by Tintoretto at Upton House | © National Trust Images/Angelo Hornak

Paintings by the 16th-century Venetian artist Jacopo Tintoretto are extremely rare in the art collections of historic houses. Now, The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, usually displayed at Upton House, is at the centre of a fascinating new conservation project.

The Tintoretto comes to Upton

Bought by Lord Bearsted in 1939, The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins took pride of place at Upton as one of the focal points of the recently created picture gallery.

Lord Bearsted felt the picture to be of great significance and was no doubt influenced by picture dealer and restorer, Horace Buttery, who wrote to him before he bought the Tintoretto, saying: ‘Sir Kenneth Clark and other experts on Venetian painting have all been enthusiastic about this picture – a recent discovery of mine – as an important unrecorded early period work. The picture is beautiful in colour – rose-pink, grey and gold – and the subject is amusingly treated’.

Uncovering the painting’s layers

A new conservation and research project aims to uncover Tintoretto’s original vision for the painting, and provide a better understanding of what is believed to be a work from the early stages of his career.

Following technical analysis, the painting will travel to the National Trust’s conservation studio at Knole in Kent. It’s hoped new information discovered during the research will not only allow visitors to see the many layers of the painting itself, but also to delve into the many layers of its story.

Who was Tintoretto?

Tintoretto’s family name was actually Robusti and he was raised surrounded by sumptuous colour. His father was a dyer, or tintore, and it’s from this that he took the name Tintoretto, or little dyer.

Tintoretto ranks second only to Titian among the Venetian painters of his time and had a prolific and successful career. Whereas most of Titian's later paintings were done for foreign patrons, Tintoretto worked mainly for Venetian clients and was the dominant figure in supplying religious pictures for the city's churches, government buildings and palaces.

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is one of the few examples of his work on display in a historic house.

A close up of The Wise and Foolish Virgins by Tintoretto at Upton House
A close up of The Wise and Foolish Virgins by Tintoretto at Upton House | © National Trust Images/Angelo Hornak

A new look through conservation

Tintoretto was a gifted storyteller and was famous for painting bold, colourful, and dramatic depictions of biblical events, such as the one in Upton’s picture. However, the painting’s appearance is currently spoiled by old restorations and layers of yellowed varnish that make the lively and complex scene feel static and flat.

Property Curator Michelle Leake says: ‘Many visitors to Upton walk past this wonderful picture without even noticing it. The image has darkened to such an extent that its original liveliness and incredible detail are now very difficult to see. I hope this project will transform the picture and allow it to be viewed in an entirely new light’.

Timeline of the project

Spring 2022

The project begins

Senior National Conservator for Paintings Rebecca Hellen gives an idea of some of the illuminating things we can expect to find out during the project: 

‘Due to trade links across Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the Venetian palette is famous for its quality and variety. During treatment we hope to identify the pigments and paints used, and carry out x-radiography and infra-red reflectography to understand more about how this piece relates to other paintings by Tintoretto and his family workshop.  

Most importantly, we hope that Tintoretto’s dramatic use of colour and light will be revealed once more and that the work will be returned both well understood and looking absolutely its best.’

Sevres Wine Cooler, showing nymphs worshipping the bust of Pan, from a service made for Louis XVI, dated 1792, in the Porcelain Lobby at Upton House, Warwickshire

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