The new Pacific Encounters Gallery will open in 2018, featuring this treated portrait of John Williams, a missionary to the Pacific islands who met a grisly end

Pacific Encounters

By Adele Wright, Paintings Conservator

The painting came to the attention of conservators because of prominent scratches in the surface and a thick yellow varnish layer that obscured the original colours and brushwork.

Image of John Williams portraitImage of John Williams portrait - scratches close up

On first investigating the painting I found a signature and date in the lower left corner which suggests that the painting was by Daniel Pasmore and painted in 1838, the year before John Williams died. Williams’ connection with the Pacific is a rather grizzly tale…

He was recruited by the London Missionary Society in 1817 to bring the Christian message to the islands of the South Pacific. Williams appears to have been very successful as a missionary and travelled extensively around the South Pacific. In 1823 he was a passenger on the colonial schooner Endeavor when they discovered the island of Raotonga, not previously known to Europeans. Williams became particularly interested in Roatonga and even translated the New Testament into the native language.

After a short trip back to England in the mid 1830s Williams was eager to return to the South Pacific and open a new missionary frontier in the New Hebrides, Melanesia. In November 1839 he landed on the island of Eromanga where he and his party were attacked by the islanders. Williams was clubbed to death in the shallows as the party fled to the ship’s boats and his body was subsequently believed to have been eaten by the islanders. The reasons for this attack are not clear but it seems likely that the missionary party unwittingly violated a taboo. The death of John Williams made him a heroic figure in the minds of English nonconformists.

The portrait of Williams was produced at the height of his missionary career, on his brief return to England in the 1830s, and represents his success and high status in the Missionary Society. The discovery of the date of the painting, only one year before the sitter’s dramatic death, adds some poignancy to the image.

After researching the history of Williams, I began my treatment of the painting. I carried out cleaning tests on the edge of the canvas to identify a suitable mixture of solvents for removing the discoloured, scratched and dirty varnish layer.

Image of John Williams portrait conservation - face close up

I examined the paint surface under ultraviolet light and using a microscope, to identify unoriginal overpaint applied by past restorers and remove this where it was safe to do so. I discovered an area of old paint loss that had been overpainted in the past next to the sitter’s mouth. I used solvents, gels and mechanical action to gently remove the unoriginal paint from this area, which had been covering a large amount of undamaged original paint.

After cleaning, I applied a clear, synthetic, removable varnish to the painting to protect the original layers and isolate them from my retouching. The same removable synthetic varnish was used to retouch the losses in the painting, particularly near the mouth of the sitter.

Image of John Williams portrait - filling

After treatment the painting has regained the depth and range of colour that had been obscured by the varnish, and the texture of the paint is now more noticeable, which highlights the painterly skill of the artist.

Image of John Williams portrait - hands with original paint

After treatment:

Image of final John Willliams portrait after conservation