At Blickling Hall, you’ll find a substantial number of fine and unique works of art. And thanks to recent donations from the Ashford Trust and the Norfolk Centre, we have just been able to preserve a series of five Grisailles paintings by artist Francis Hayman – one of the founding members of the Royal Academy.
The paintings are significant due to their type, with the word ‘Grisailles’ referring to the greyish, monochrome colour scheme used. As Painting Conservator, Sally Woodcock reveals…
A Grisailles painting may be created for its own sake, or used as an underpainting for the artist to later finish in colour. In the case of Blickling’s collection, little is known about the original use of Francis Hayman’s Grisailles other than they used to hang in the library, but we know they are very much of their time. The fashion in the early 18th century was to hint towards classicism and antiquity, and the Grisailles resemble the frescos and marble reliefs that were popular at this time.
What is particularly interesting is that, despite the changes in fashion, with a move towards the Arts and Crafts period towards the later part of the 18th century, these paintings have stood the test of time, and remained as valued pieces throughout their lifespan.
The challenge with conservation is to improve and prolong the life of a painting, without changing too much of its surface characteristics – as this would mean removing elements of the painting’s history. So, along with Painting Conservator, Polly Saltmarsh, we have been working carefully on consolidating and cleaning the surface, treating the framework for woodworm and filling in surface cracks.
Conserving the paintwork has been especially challenging, due to the fact the surface is unvarnished and the paint is quite matt; Hayman is thought to have used a higher proportion of pigment to oil to replicate the look and feel of stonework, and this has resulted in it being very porous.
The canvas itself is also unlined. This means any cleaning liquid or glue inevitably soaks through the thirsty surface, and can easily discolour the paintwork. So, Polly and I have consolidated the painting, by filling in any surface cracking with specialist glue and using a hot air blower pen kindly borrowed from Willard Conservation Ltd to set this in place. Once consolidated, I’ve used deionised water to lightly clean the surface of the painting, gently removing excess dirt and debris caused by insects and bats.
The money donated has also helped to carry out preventative conservation to the frames to ensure that they fully support the canvases. Interestingly, it’s been assumed that these black frames with gilded edges are original, but white flecks of paint seen on the sides of the canvas (only visible when the paintings are removed from their frame) perhaps suggest that the frames were actually white originally.
The conservation work we have carried out on this Hayman series will significantly improve the lifespan of these works, embodying the idea of preserving the past forever, for everyone.