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Stunning restoration reveals beautiful seventeenth-century masterpiece at Dulwich Picture Gallery
Bolognese School, Saint Cecilia, 17th century, oil on canvas, Bourgeois Bequest 1811, © By permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery. Before conservation.

LONDON.- Yesterday, on the feast day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, Dulwich Picture Gallery unveiled its newly restored painting: Saint Cecilia. The campaign to restore this seventeenth-century masterpiece to its original appearance began in 2009. The Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery, with support from The Pilgrim Trust, adopted the painting and its frame, enabling conservation work to begin. Rips were repaired, the painting was cleaned and its frame was adjusted to fit. The results of this painstaking work will be unveiled tonight in an event to include a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Ode to Saint Cecilia.

The painting was first brought to London in 1790 when it was purchased by Noel Joseph Desenfans from the French print-maker and dealer, Jean-Baptise Pierre Le Brun. At the time of its purchase, Saint Cecilia was thought to be a work by seventeenth-century Bolognese painter Annibale Carracci. As such, Desenfans hung it in pride of place at the home in Charlotte (now Hallam) Street, London, that he shared with fellow art dealer and co-founder of Dulwich Picture Gallery, Sir Francis Bourgeois.

According to a record of the display scheme at Charlotte Street, Saint Cecilia hung in the lofty surroundings of the ‘Skylight Room’ amongst a cluster of masterpieces by other members of the Bolognese school. These included Domenichino (The Adoration of the Shepherds, now at the Scottish National Gallery and due for loan as December’s ‘Masterpiece a Month’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery) and Reni (The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, on display at Dulwich Picture Gallery). Significantly, however, it hung directly alongside a version of the celebrated Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds (also now at Dulwich Picture Gallery). It is possible that Bourgeois and Desenfans paired the works according to their compatible themes – with Mrs Siddons being the most famous actress of the late eighteenth century and Saint Cecilia the patron saint of music – but it is also likely that this pairing was intended as a homage to Reynolds, placing his work amongst some of the best examples of the Bolognese school of painting he so admired. Either way, in order to make this a symmetrical pairing and the works equal in size, Bourgeois added wide strips around the Saint Cecilia canvas to enlarge it to the size of Mrs. Siddons.

The additions that Bourgeois made, however, eventually started to disintegrate and come away from the original seventeenth-century canvas. Well-known art critic Mrs. Jameson, writing in A Handbook to the public galleries of art in and near London (1842), made the rather scathing observation that she had ‘seldom seen a picture so shamefully maltreated – so patched and repainted…[Sir Francis Bourgeois’s] hand is clearly distinguishable’. Later in the nineteenth century, Saint Cecilia, in its poor condition, was removed from display at Dulwich Picture Gallery and has not been on display since.

Saint Cecilia is a fine example of seventeenth-century Baroque Bolognese School painting by an artist in the circle of Carracci. Crucially, the recent conservation work undertaken as part of the Gallery’s Adopt an Old Master Scheme, will now enable scholars to study this work more closely and make better-informed judgements on it. In time, the Gallery hopes to move further towards pinpointing the identity of the artist behind this long-forgotten masterpiece.

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