Freshening Frescoes: Restoring Two Of Britain’s Largest Paintings

Work has begun to restore two of the most prominent – and by far the largest – works in the British Houses of Parliament, and if all goes well, they may go some way to rehabilitating the reputation of the artist who painted them.

The frescoes, by Irish artist Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) depict the death of Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, and the meeting of the Duke of Wellington and Prince Gebhard von Blücher on the field of Waterloo. Maclise won a national competition to execute the paintings in the Royal Gallery of the newly-constructed House of Lords, a large ceremonial space typically used for the grandest of official ceremonies or dinners. His work was particularly encouraged by Prince Albert, in his role as head of the Fine Arts Committee overseeing the decoration of the new Palace of Westminster.

RoyalGallery

Unfortunately, the paintings began to darken and fade soon after they were painted. At the time, blame was accorded to Maclise and his methodology, which involved what is known as the “water-glass technique”, which Prince Albert sent him to Germany to study. This painting technique starts out in the traditional fresco method, with pigment painted on patches of fresh, wet plaster applied to the wall surface. After this, a coating consisting of water mixed with a silica is applied on top of the pigment while the surface is still wet. The concept here is that, once the entire surface dries, the paint and plaster will be covered with a microscopically thin, protective layer of glassy film. It never really worked very well, which is probably why you’ve never heard of it.

It seems however that the fault lies not in Maclise’s stars, as it were, but in ourselves. As The Guardian reports:

The conservation work, which has involved research by academics in Germany on the fresco technique, has absolved both men of blame. Despite damage from leaking windows, settlement cracks probably dating from the 19th century, and the near destruction of the gallery in the second world war when masonry from a bombed tower crashed through the roof, the frescoed plaster is still sound.

“None of it was poor Maclise’s fault,” said Caroline Babington, collections care manager. “The place was still a building site and the whole city was burning coal. It wasn’t the paint turning black, it was just filthy London air.”

We forget now, when London is no longer plagued by dense clouds of fog and soot, how filthy the city became thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of coal in homes, businesses, and transportion. I can recall living in London at the turn of the preceding century, and watching a Victorian grand hotel near my home slowly being cleaned of over a century of grime that had accumulated on its façade. In the space of a few months, it went from being a structure that appeared to have been painted entirely black, back to its original pale pink granite and gleaming white marble.

You can get a sense of how bright Maclise’s frescoes originally were by checking out his completed study for “The Death of Nelson”, which is now at The Walker in Liverpool. The contrast between the blues, reds, and whites should immediately remind you of the Union Jack, naturally enough. The composition appears to be linear, with all of the figures spread out from left to right, but notice how the artist has placed the dying Nelson and his surrounding companions at the top of a semi-circle on the deck of his ship, pushed back so that the action actually arches away from us toward the center.

Study

At closer range, the comparison between the finished study of the center of the painting in Liverpool, and that of the finished work in its current state of preservation in the House of Lords, is readily apparent:

NelsonWestminster

NelsonLiverpool

Similarly, in Maclise’s painting of Waterloo, which you can see below at full width, everything appears to be rather murky, faded, and dirty.

WaterlooWestminster

However in this study of the central portion of the composition, in which Maclise shows the Prussian and British leaders shaking hands, we get a sense of how vivid the colors of the completed work once were, in comparison of the current state of preservation of the fresco versus that of a far more vibrant study:

ParliamentWaterloo

DetailWaterlooClean

I can’t say that, for my part, I’m a big fan of this sort of historical painting, even though for much of the 18th through early 20th century, these sorts of works were considered the epitome art. Thanks to the rigors of the academic method of art instruction, history paintings were definitely considered to be at the top of the pecking order among the members of the art establishment during this time, and artists competed fiercely to gain these commissions. Today however, a painstakingly executed history painting, albeit not one quite so large as one of these, would fetch a fraction of what a hastily-executed sketch by an Impressionist would achieve in a gallery or auction.

Perhaps because these works of art are often so vast, and crowded with so much action, it’s difficult to see them as something more than giant comic books. Or perhaps because the celebrate the achievements of man, rather than the grace of God, they are often utterly banal. For every great history painting that we might name, there are 100 more which we don’t even know about or remember, languishing away in museum basements or down dark corridors of public buildings.

Yet in this case, I think that the effort to clean up these particular works, which will inevitably result in a wider reexamination of Maclise and his art as a whole, will prove to be a good thing. These frescoes were considered enormously significant at the time of their execution, and crowds of people flocked to see Maclise’s designs, sketches, and finished products. Gaining a better understanding of the man and his work would simultaneously help to raise interest in and knowledge of a genre of painting which, while now largely out of favor, still represents an important and influential chapter in the history of Western art.

The Bling’s The Thing: Meet The World-Famous Artist You’ve Never Heard Of

The buzz in the antiques market at the moment concerns the possible sale of a sapphire and diamond-encrusted coronet, made for Queen Victoria and designed by her husband Prince Albert. While the art press awaits the news of whether it will be exported from England, which seems unlikely given its historic significance, this piece of jewelry gives me a chance to introduce you to the work of an artist who was once one of the most popular painters in the world, and who now is mostly forgotten. This is a shame, for not only did he paint beautiful pictures, but he managed to capture his time in a way which I believe has been overlooked.

Having your portrait painted by a famous artist has been a status symbol for centuries, from Sandro Botticelli in the 15th century to Andy Warhol in the 20th. In his day, the German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873) was a hugely successful part of this long tradition. If you were anybody, or aspired to be somebody, during the early to mid-Victorian period, you wanted to be painted by Winterhalter. Emperors, princes, and maharajas all paid hefty sums to be immortalized on canvas by his brush, and the artist rose from obscure, peasant poverty to become a steam engine-era millionaire of international renown.

Winterhalter was in particularly high demand for his portraits of glamorous women, such as the Empress Elizabeth of Austria and the Empress Eugénie of France. Perhaps his most famous painting is a portrait of the latter surrounded by her ladies in waiting, but I prefer his portrait of the former in a white ball gown, wearing diamonds braided into her long hair, a work that is still hanging in the Imperial Apartments at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. [On a personal note, my Mother used this painting as a reference in designing her wedding dress, so it has always been a personal favorite.]

Winterhalter painted many of the royal families of Europe, employing a mixture of flattery and attention to detail that ensured a never-ending stream of prestigious clients. He not only made them look beautiful, in some cases more beautiful than they actually were, but he had an eye for detail that allowed him to capture the subtleties of dress, such as sparkling jewels and silks for the ladies, and polished boots and military medals for the gentlemen. In fact he received so many commissions, that his studio employed dozens of assistants just to keep up with the orders for both original works and copies of them. Although his first big break came in France, it was the British Royal family that really placed the promising young Winterthaler on a firm, international footing.

In 1842, Winterhalter painted his first portrait of the 23-year-old Queen Victoria, who as you can see in the image below just so happens to be wearing the sapphire and diamond coronet that has now come onto the market. The little crown is wrapped in her braids, rather than being placed on top of her head, as you might expect, making what we would consider a fashion statement. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, designed the piece to be worn this way based on several Van Dyck paintings of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of the ill-fated King Charles I, who was shown wearing a similar little crown on the back of her head. Winterhalter’s image of the somewhat shy and reserved young Queen became hugely popular, both at home and abroad, and many copies were made.

The British Royals were so pleased with the result, that over the next two decades they commissioned well over 100 paintings from Winterhalter. Prince Albert’s favorite Winterhalter portrait of his wife, which the Queen commissioned in 1843 and gave to her husband as a birthday present that year, was never intended to be displayed to the general public. It shows the young Victoria leaning back against some red velvet cushions, displaying both her décolletage and a heart-shaped locket that had been a gift from Albert. We can see that part of hairdo has come undone, and her long hair trails down the side of her neck in an extremely informal, seductive sort of way.

Stripped of the sentiment behind it, I have always found this to be a rather tacky picture. At the very least, there is certainly nothing dignified about it. It is reminiscent of the “glamour photography” craze of the 1990’s, in which women paid photographers in strip malls to take photographs of themselves dressed as prostitutes, as gifts for their husbands. (No wonder the divorce rate climbed to 50%.)

Winterthaler’s last official portrait of the Queen was painted in 1859, and it is one of his best images of her. Victoria is no longer the shy, young princess suddenly thrust onto the world stage, nor the blushing bride who only has eyes for her handsome husband, but a beautiful, yet strong woman, the ruler of a vast empire. Gazing confidently down from her throne, she is Britannia personified. Images such as this helped to cement the cult of personality that grew up around Victoria, and for a time protected her during the long years of her self-imposed internal exile following the death of Prince Albert in 1861.

So given examples such as these, why is it that Winterhalter does not leap to mind in the same way that other portrait painters like Velázquez or Gainsborough continue to do, centuries later? Perhaps it is because his paintings, for all of their technical skill, can sometimes seem more like interior decoration than works of art. His figures are often ciphers: they may be beautiful or handsome, but in their Winterhalter portraits it appears that we can learn little to nothing about them as individuals.

By way of contrast, take a look at the work of another society painter, John Singer Sargent, who was working a generation after Winterhalter but still in the Victorian era. In his 1888 portrait of Mrs. Eleanora Iselin, now in the National Gallery here in DC, he shows us a society maven, dressed in rich, dark silks, standing next to a luxurious piece of antique furniture. The genius of Sargent is in the detail of the extended pinkie: hers is such an iron will, that we almost believe that this haughty lady could balance her entire weight on just the strength of her tiny finger.

It is true that Winterhalter rarely exhibits this level of nuance or psychological insight in his images. Popular as his paintings and prints of them were at the time, the art critics of his day never cared for his work in general. As his idiosyncratic style fell out of fashion, and the monarchs whom he painted died or were forced from their thrones, the public lost interest in him as well. People wanted to be able to study a portrait, and walk away from it feeling that they had experienced a kind of revelation about the sitter from the experience, rather than simply having seen a pretty picture.

To give him his credit however, I think we can look at Winterhalter’s work today, and read him as a skilled chronicler of obsession. Many of those whom he painted were incredibly vain and acquisitive, and during the 19th century they and the nations over which they ruled were all in competition with one another on the world stage for colonies and commerce. The Victorians had a seemingly bottomless appetite for accumulation, overstuffing their fussy houses with art, furniture, and bric-a-brac, and displaying as much fabric and bling on their own persons as they possibly could. Viewed through this lens, Winterhalter was simply putting these obsessions onto canvas in tandem with the spirit of the Victorian age.

Thus “Sissi”, as the Empress Elizabeth of Austria was called, was famous for obsessing for hours over preparing her luxuriant hair and maintaining her svelte figure. In fact as she grew older, and her beauty began to fade, she refused to have any more portraits or photographs taken of her, so that people would remember her as she had been. The Spanish-born Empress Eugénie of France loved ordering and helping to design fine clothes, and spent her nearly two decades in power setting standards and starting trends in French fashion. At the same time, she managed to accumulate one of the largest collections of jewelry in Europe.

Queen Victoria, as we all know, was mainly obsessed with her husband – to the point of an almost macabre unwillingness to accept the reality of his untimely death. It is telling that although she had favored Winterhalter with many commissions in the era named for her, after Albert’s death she never employed the artist to paint her again. However when she was finally lured back out into public life, attending the formal State Opening of Parliament in 1866, she did so wearing the same coronet that she had worn when Winterhalter first painted her portrait.

Whatever ultimately happens to that coronet then, it is a tangible reminder of an age of obsession and acquisition which her reign helped inaugurate, and one which Winterhalter knew and understood extremely well.