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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Guest Post! Conservator as Curator: Joshua Reynolds at Wallace Collection

A few weeks ago we had a fantastic tour of the Wallace Collection's new exhibition on Joshua Reynolds from Alexandra Gent, the co-curator and conservator. I know right? Conservator and curator- what a great idea! So we asked Alex if she wouldn't mind sharing some of her experiences with you. We think her fantastic guest post lets you get up close and personal with Reynolds as well as revealing the ups and downs of international loans and getting technical in exhibition text! Enjoy...

Alex Gent gives us a peak behind the scenes!
I was really excited to be given the opportunity to co-curate the exhibition Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint with Lucy Davis and Mark Hallett. As conservator for the Reynolds Research Project I had spent several years examining the twelve paintings by Reynolds in the Wallace Collection. Working closely with the scientists at the National Gallery, I not only looked at the surface of the paintings (often in minute detail using a microscope) but also beneath the surface- exploring the layers of paint and varnish.  This process gave me a lot of time to think about Reynolds as an artist and the way he painted.  I think I got to know Reynolds the artist pretty well over this time. What makes him so fascinating to me is as much what he gets wrong and what he gets right. 

Reynolds, technique and conservation science

Through examining his paintings we were trying to unpick his technique and work out; what materials he used, what has changed and just why some of his pictures are so cracked and faded? There were a few things that struck me as really interesting about Reynolds’s technique as I examined the paintings from the Wallace Collection. The first was the production of multiple versions of a composition. I have always been captivated by unfinished paintings as they reveal an artist’s work in progress. So I was delighted to discover that there were unfinished oil sketches related to both the portrait of Mrs Hoare and Child and the portrait of Mrs Mary Robinson. These are slightly different in style from each other and presented interesting questions such as; what came first- the finished portrait or the sketch, and why were they made? 

Reynold's Mrs Robinson from Yale
In the case of another composition, the Strawberry Girl, the multiple versions are completed paintings but with slight variations. I was really excited when I first saw the X-ray image of the Wallace Collection painting as it showed it was originally more like the first variant, with a fringed headdress and hunched shoulders. This was especially revealing as I had read in James Northcote’s The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds that Reynolds had recommended working on two versions of a composition simultaneously; the technical analysis seemed to support the anecdote. 

The second was Reynolds’s use of drapery painters and assistants. I knew that Reynolds did use drapery painters, as was common in the 18th century
What was less well understood was that Reynolds finished off his paintings, adjusting the work of the drapery painter once it returned to his easel. For example the drapery in the portrait of the Duke of Queensberry, looks like the work of a drapery painter, however the X-ray image and the infrared reflectogram revealed changes to the costume, including the repositioning of the rows of spots on his ermine cape. Using other hands sped up the painting process but Reynolds was putting his stamp on the paintings before it left his studio, making changes and adding the finishing touches.



The Strawberry Girl
The third observation was that Reynolds did seem to learn from his mistakes but also he often changed his technique in ways that created new problems. The grey face of The Duke of Queensberry clearly illustrates the major defect in his early portraits- the fading of the red lake pigment he used to emulate a more naturalistic skin tone. The later portraits certainly don’t have this problem. But the later portraits are more prone to cracking caused by his increased use of varnish in his paint and the application of numerous paint layers. The challenge of the exhibition was to convey what we had discovered about Reynolds’s technique without overwhelming the paintings with technical information. We tried to do this by selecting paintings that would help illustrate his painting process.

Collaborative curation

For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of working on the exhibition was selecting the paintings we wanted to borrow. Throughout the project I had been in touch with conservators from other institutions who had undertaken investigation and treatment of paintings by Joshua Reynolds. They were all extremely generous with their time and sharing the results of their research. So it was great to be able to borrow paintings from Tate (The Age of Innocence), The Yale Center for British Art (Mrs Mary Robinson, Mrs Abbington as Miss Prue) and the National Portrait Gallery (Self-portrait shading Eyes) and draw on the results of recent technical analysis for the exhibition. Finalising the loans list also gave me an insight into the difficulties curators face when requests are rejected or the budget won’t quite stretch to another international loan (I promise to be more sympathetic in future!). 

Mrs Robinson from the Wallace Collection
I also really enjoyed working with my co-curators Lucy and Mark. I felt that curating the exhibition was a truly collaborative process, with each of us bringing a different set of skills and expertise.  They were both incredibly supportive of using technical material in the exhibition and also very good at making sure it was clearly presented. We were all very keen that the technical research didn’t seem to be bolted on but was integrated into the narrative of the exhibition.  I hope that we have succeeded. 

As conservators we tend to stay behind the scenes and generally our work is successful if it isn’t noticed. However from the beginning of the Reynolds Research Project I was asked to go into the galleries at the Wallace Collection and speak about my work. Now that the exhibition is open I’ve relished the opportunity to talk about the paintings that I’ve come to know so well and expand upon the information included on the labels. I don’t know when I’ll get another chance to curate an exhibition but I would definitely welcome the opportunity to do it again.


Alexandra Gent is Paintings Conservator for the Reynolds Research Project at the Wallace Collection and co-curator of the exhibition Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint. She is also currently working as a paintings conservator for Tate.  @AlexandraRGent

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