29 Jun 2016
Mark Seale has been busy preparing this mid-18th century frame for its upcoming display in the Queen's House.
by Mark Seale
Vice-Admiral John Byng
John Byng strikes a proud and somewhat stately pose in this painting by Thomas Hudson from 1749. However less than ten years later, Byng’s fortunes had been radically reversed.
His downfall began when he was chosen to command a fleet to attack the French off the coast of Minorca early in the Seven Years War. After an indecisive engagement with the French fleet, he judged his own ships to require repair and sailed to Gibraltar. This caution cost him dearly. Upon his return to England, he was charged with ‘failing to do his upmost’, court-martialled and sentenced to death by firing squad.
On 14 March 1757, Byng was blindfolded and ordered to sit on a cushion. His last act was to signal he was ready by dropping a white handkerchief, whereupon he was executed by a squad of marines.
It is rare to have a painting from the 18th century still housed within its original frame. This example is particularly special because of its grandiose and bespoke nature.
The frame is a superb example of British Rococo craftmanship. This curvaceous style, which disseminating from France around 1720, is illustrated in the frame’s swept profile and grand, pierced cartouches.
The most esoteric embellishment on the frame, and the reason we knowit to be original to the painting, is the creature crowning the top. This is a carved depiction of a heraldic antelope, which is the Byng family crest. The word ‘Tuebor’ beneath the antelope is the family’s motto, which means ‘I will defend’.
Though there was no documentation, it is clearly visible that the frame’s surface had been treated in the past. Under magnification at least two bronze paint schemes were visible, over the original gold. This bronze paint was probably applied to hide losses in the gilding. The application of bronze paint is no longer considered acceptable conservation practice as it discolours over time and is very hard to remove without damaging the original gold beneath.
The treatment involved consolidation and inpainting. The frame surface was deteriorated, with both the gilding and gesso under-layer flaking away from the wooden substrate beneath. If left untreated this would have resulted in losses to the golden surface.
In order to stabilise these areas, I injected Lascaux medium for consolidation, which acts as a weak internal adhesive. I then eased any flakes back into their correct position with a bamboo spatula.
Any losses in the gilding revealed distracting and unsightly white gesso beneath. These white losses were inpainted with watercolours, to allow the decorative surface to appear more coherent and aesthetically pleasing.
With the treatment completed, the frame is now stable and ready to be proudly hung in the Queen’s House.
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