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New conservation reveals lost details of intimate Gainsborough portrait
Gainsborough Dupont, the Artists’s Nephew by Thomas Gainsborough, 1773. Oil on canvas, 516 x 388mm. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

LONDON.- A stunning oval portrait by Thomas Gainsborough of his nephew and apprentice, Gainsborough Dupont, has been cleaned by the National Portrait Gallery conservation studios to reveal the artist’s original brushwork and vibrant colours. This is the first time in over 100 years this painting has been lent from its home at Waddesdon Manor, and was conserved especially for the forthcoming exhibition Gainsborough’s Family Album, opening at the National Portrait Gallery London on 22 November. It was only identified as a portrait of Dupont in 2003 by Susan Sloman, author of Gainsborough in Bath and a contributor to the book accompanying Gainsborough’s Family Album.

This portrait offers a magnificent display of Gainsborough’s talent. Inspired by Van Dyck, Gainsborough has transformed the teenage son of a humble Suffolk carpenter into a gilded youth who looks as if he had stepped straight out of the court of Charles I. At the time, the author, Philip Thicknesse, a close friend of Thomas Gainsborough’s declared the portrait to be ‘more like the work of God than man’ and ‘the finest head he ever painted’. Gainsborough gave away the painting and soon afterwards it entered the collection of Lord Bateman, an aristocrat with connections at court. The painting was hung in his residence on Park Lane, London, a prestigious setting where it would have been seen and admired by the highest levels of society who, like its new owner, would have appreciated the painting not as a portrait of Dupont but because it represented the very finest example of modern art. This portrait, like a number of others in the exhibition depicting a family member, was pivotal to Gainsborough's reputation and career.

On close inspection by the conservation studios at the National Portrait Gallery, it was established that the painting had undergone some previous conservation work, probably in the 19th century. The canvas and paint layers were in a stable condition but it was compromised by an old degraded varnish which had yellowed with age and become matte and dull. The varnish was affecting the clarity and tone of the composition, and some of the subtle techniques employed by the artist were obscured. Small cleaning tests were undertaken to tailor a method of removing the layers of varnish.

Removing the varnish enabled the amazing handling of the painting to be revealed. The amazingly deft and speedy handling of paint, that can be seen in broad and bold brush strokes conveys Gainsborough’s celebrated ‘sprezzatura’. It has been discovered that the highlight on the sitter's forehead and nose was the last element of the composition to be applied, close examination shows it was painted up and around the sitter's hairline. Touches of blue were revealed which were previously not apparent through the old varnish; there are strokes of blue paint in the sitter's hair and around his eyes, reflecting the blue of the jacket. The conservation has also shown how Gainsborough allowed his ground– a pinky-beige colour – to act as a highlight through his thin application of painting. This accords with one contemporary report by, Philip Thicknesse, that Gainsborough painted the portrait in less than an hour, as a demonstration of his virtuosity. While the time involved is likely to be an exaggeration, the portrait was certainly painted at speed and Gainsborough was economical in his application of the paint layers. Consequently, the paint handling is more free and expressive than most of his commissioned pieces for paying clients: portraits of family members allowed Gainsborough the freedom to be more experimental and ambitious in his work.

Polly Saltmarsh, Painting Conservator at the National Portrait Gallery said, “One of the joys of my job is having the privilege of working so closely with paintings. Having the opportunity to study the techniques Gainsborough has employed in this beautiful portrait has been a highlight of the preparation for the forthcoming exhibition. Removing the old varnish and revealing elements which were previously obscured is very satisfying, and witnessing the reaction of curators and visitors seeing the painting after treatment is a real pleasure.”

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