20 Jun, 2010

What lies beneath

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Infrared and electron microscopes help determine a genuine Raphael, as new exhibition shows

On a lower floor of the National Gallery, at the heart of the museum’s magnificent Italian collection, there is a small picture of a mother who is handing carnations to the baby on her lap. The colours of the painting, although more than 500 years old, are rich and luminous. The fabrics of the woman’s dress are meticulously folded while the tracery of veil around her head is depicted with breathtaking skill.

This is Raphael’s The Madonna of the Pinks, which is not only one of the gallery’s finest works – a painting of “concentrated magnetism”, according to the historian Lisa Jardine – but one with an unexpected provenance. For years, the original was thought to have been lost until Nicholas Penny, at the time a curator, but now the director of the National Gallery, visited Alnwick castle in Northumberland in 1991 and noticed what was presumed to be a copy of the painting but which was mounted in an expensive, ornate frame. Why give such a lavish setting to a mere copy? he wondered.

Penny had the picture taken to the gallery’s conservation department where infrared images revealed a superbly executed drawing of the Madonna and child beneath its layers of paint. The impact of this discovery was profound, as will be revealed with the opening of the National’s exhibition, Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes & Discoveries. The show celebrates the groundbreaking work of the gallery’s scientific department with The Madonna of the Pinks forming a key part of the exhibition.

“Infrared images of the Alnwick painting showed the wood panel of this small, devotional work had first been covered with a plaster-like substance called gesso and then coated in a quite thick layer of off-white oil paint,” says Dr Ashok Roy, director of scientific research at the gallery. “Using a metal point, the artist had then drawn lines on the surface, including elaborate hatchings, to create a detailed drawing of the Madonna and her child. Then he painted over it, following the outlines carefully.”

The metal point, on its own, was brilliantly crafted though it contained occasional tell-tale differences – in the costume and background landscape – from the picture that the artist eventually painted over it. This was no copy, Penny concluded, for no painter would devote such attention and care if he was merely making a likeness of another painting. This had to be a genuine Raphael.

Further research vindicated this interpretation. The painting’s under-drawing was compared with one discovered beneath an authenticated picture by Raphael, a work known as The Small Cowper Madonna, in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and was found to be very similar in style. For good measure, it was discovered that powdered bismuth, an unusual pigment favoured by Raphael, had been used in the Alnwick painting, adding further proof of its authenticity. (The Madonna of the Pinks, thought to have been painted in 1507, gets its title from the flowers that the mother and child are handing each other: these are pinks, symbols of marriage. Thus the picture is depicting the Virgin Mary as not only the mother but the bride of Christ.)

After a huge public appeal, the picture was eventually bought for £35m in 2004 from the Duke of Northumberland, though the purchase would never have happened had it not been for Penny’s inspired detective work. Equally, without the work of the gallery’s scientists to back him, the Alnwick painting’s true origin would have remained in doubt and the crowds that now flock to the National would be deprived of a sight of the painting.

Today, techniques involving infrared imaging, as well as x-ray photography, electron microscopy and mass spectrometry, many of them pioneered by the National Gallery, are mainstays in the business of art curation. And occasionally their use makes headlines, as was the case with The Madonna of the Pinks. Indeed, there have been one or two extraordinary fakes and many flawed attributions exposed by the gallery’s scientists over the decades, as the Close Examination exhibition will demonstrate.

Consider The Virgin and Child With an Angel, which was acquired by the gallery in 1924 and which was supposedly the work of the Renaissance painter Francesco Francia. It was eventually shown, thanks to paint analysis and infrared photography, to be a late 19th-century forgery. Similarly, in 1874, the gallery bought two Botticelli paintings – Venus and Mars and An Allegory – at an auction of works collected by Alexander Barker. The more costly of the two, An Allegory, was subsequently revealed to be a contemporary imitation of Botticelli’s work. Both will be shown at the exhibition in a display about taste and connoisseurship.

However, it would be a mistake to view the work of the gallery’s scientists as being primarily concerned with the exposure of fakes, says Ashok Roy. “It would be completely incidental if a painting was found to be a fake during the course of our investigations. We are primarily concerned with helping conservation, understanding how a picture was made, revealing what techniques were used in its painting and explaining why those techniques were employed in the first place.”

A slightly built, dapper figure, dressed in a neatly pressed blue shirt, dark tie and black trousers, Roy is crisply articulate about the use of technology to explore great art. He presides over a suite of rooms at the top of the National Gallery where he and his colleagues are now painstakingly analysing the gallery’s entire collection of paintings to reveal the secrets of their creation. One room is dominated by a powerful research microscope while a computer screen displays a red-and-blue cross-section of a sliver of paint. You can see, precisely, from images of the pigment layers how the artist first painted his canvas dark blue and then added an overlay of crimson. The benches nearby are strewn with sample phials with minute flecks of paint in them.

The department also has a large electron microscope, a mass spectrometer and a library devoted to art conservation and the technical study of paintings. It is a thoroughly impressive set-up, though Roy acknowledges that its most important feature is not the equipment but the gallery itself. “Of the great collections of the world, the National Gallery is, effectively, the most comprehensive,” he says. There are 2,400 paintings in the gallery and more than 80 per cent are on display. Unlike many other museums or art galleries, few works are kept in stores out of public sight.

The crucial point is that the National Gallery collection, although not vast like that of the Louvre, has got tremendous breadth. All European schools are represented. “Here you see the true span of European painting which is possible at only three or four other, far larger collections, including the Louvre and the Prado. By contrast, a gallery like the Uffizi in Florence, although a wonderful collection, is really only concerned with Italian painting from the early 14th century to the 16th century. It tells us nothing about Rembrandt, for example.”

Set up in 1934, the gallery’s science department is one of the oldest in the world and its staff have acquired a high reputation for their investigations of Europe’s great paintings and painters. Take the example of the work that has been done there on Raphael. Along with Vermeer, Van Eyck, Leonardo and others, he has emerged – from scientific scrutiny – as an exponent of the precise, restrained application of paint, an artist who worked up absolutely everything with his drawings – a hand here, a little sketch of the Virgin and child there, a bit of architecture on the side – before he got round to the actual business of painting.

By contrast, the works of one of Raphael’s immediate successors, Titian, when screened in infrared, turn out to have been created in a very different manner. As Roy points out, there are no signs of detailed metal point or drawing underneath his paintings (though Titian was also a master when it came to drawing, as can be seen at the current British Museum exhibition, Italian Renaissance Drawings). “There is a bit of sketching on the back of a picture and then clearly Titian just goes for it. Indeed, he was very proud of this ability to work without first doing careful drawing. He wanted to show those who commissioned his work, patrons such as the Duke of Ferrara, that he did not need a lot of fussy design.”

To study how artists have applied paint on to a canvas or panel, scientists use another, standard technology: x-rays. These display the extraordinary layers that some artists build up when beginning their work, with the 18th-century English portrait painter Joshua Reynolds winning Roy’s all-time prize for pigment pile-up. “We have got a cross-section taken from the background of one Reynolds picture which is just a dull, greyish-green colour, yet it holds the record for having the largest number of paint layers on it. It has got 27 original paint layers, just to create a dull grey background.”

Reynolds turns out to be a bit of challenge for the curation business. Obsessed with the work of the great Venetian artists, he is known to have taken one of their works and scraped it down layer by layer to see how it had been painted. He was also a committed experimentalist and used a range of painting materials that today bring curators close to apoplexy.

“Reynolds was a very good painter, but he often used unstable materials and added things to his paints which made them very vulnerable to cleaning,” says Roy. “We have an important Reynolds portrait of Lord Heathfield, which is one of the pictures in the gallery’s founding collection. The picture is very dirty today and has a horrid cracked background. But when we examined it before beginning conservation treatment, we discovered Reynolds had used a varnish that was very similar in chemical composition to some of the paint’s components.

“As a result, a chemical bond has been created between the portrait’s varnish and paint which means you simply cannot remove the varnish – the first act of conservation – without affecting the paint underneath.” For this reason, Lord Heathfield remains uncleaned on the wall in Room 34 of the National, a grubby but nevertheless still superbly executed testament to the vision of Joshua Reynolds.

Not that Reynolds was on his own when it came to experimenting with the composition of his paints. His contemporary, George Stubbs, who is best remembered for his paintings of horses, was also prone to adding odd substances to his palette. One of his works, A Gentleman Driving a Lady in a Phaeton, was being prepared for cleaning when it was discovered that Stubbs had mixed non-drying materials in his layers of paints. These included wax and an odd material known as bog-butter, a fatty substance found in peat bogs which is associated with buried human remains. Why Stubbs added this to his paint is a mystery, Roy admits. “Perhaps he was just trying to give it a little body.”

The late 18th century was the heyday of artistic experiment, at least when it came to pigments. In the early 19th century, the developing chemical and dye industries in Britain, France and Germany began to provide artists with revolutionary new types of paint, though the process was not always successful. For example, Turner, who was obsessed with depicting spectacular sunsets, began using a vivid red pigment called pure scarlet, an iodide of mercury, at the suggestion of the chemist Sir Humphrey Davy. Turner used the pigment in several works including The Fighting Temeraire (1839), which won a 2005 BBC poll to find the nation’s most popular picture. (Turner loved it himself. He called it his “darling” and refused to sell it.) The crucial point is this pigment has now decayed and changed, says Roy. “The Fighting Temeraire has this pigment in its sunset and it has vanished. We know from our analysis that it was once there but has now gone. Luckily, it is in only quite small parts of the picture that this highly unstable pure scarlet was used. It has faded and other bits have turned brown. So the painting has therefore changed, slightly, from the one painted by Turner.”

And that is the real value of work by scientists such as Roy. It can tell us how a painting has altered over the centuries and how it would once have appeared, critical knowledge when trying to understanding the motivation behind the creation of a work of art and in trying to save it for future generations.

“If you are going to restore or conserve pictures, you have to know how they were painted and with what materials,” says Roy. “You need to know what their true condition is and you need to know how the picture is going to behave towards any conservation treatment that is proposed. You also need to know in what conditions it is safe to show them – light levels and so forth. Art depends a great deal on good science these days.”

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