Christ Teacheth Humility – a monumental painting by the Scottish artist Robert Scott Lauder (1803-1869) – returned to the National Galleries of Scotland in August 2019 after being on long-loan off-site for more than 35 years.
The intention was to conserve the work live during a major public exhibition by the galleries in the Royal Scottish Academy building in summer 2020. Then the Covid pandemic changed everything.
The scale of the painting (it is more than three metres in width and two metres in height) had already necessitated the purchase of a bespoke electric easel. We also needed space to carry out essential conservation work on the 1847 artwork. For this reason, it was decided to carry out the project in one of the large, top-lit galleries that was vacant due to the cancellation of the exhibition.
Arrangements were made for senior conservator, Lesley Stevenson, to work on site and risk assessments were carried out to ensure compliance with all lockdown restrictions at the time.
The main priorities of this project were to:
- Improve the appearance of the work.
- Carry out technical examination.
- Mitigate future deterioration.
The first challenge was to assess the extent to which the painting could be restored. The surface of the painting was visibly darkened with some areas of the composition almost illegible. The concern was that the artist may have added unstable materials to his paint thereby rendering it difficult (if not impossible) to remove upper discoloured layers of varnish safely.
A number of varnish-solubility tests were undertaken across the surface; thankfully these proved successful and cleaning was able to progress in a relatively straightforward manner.
This gave us the opportunity to look more closely at the artist’s materials and technique. One interesting feature explored was the fact that the composition had been extended along the upper edge by applying paint on an area of primed canvas that had been hidden under the original shaped slip.
Over time, as the oil paint became more transparent, the transition between the two painting campaigns had become more apparent. Collaborative research with the curatorial team revealed that this modification was likely made in 1849 when the artist and local restorer, James Walker, completed some repairs to the painting.
These earlier repairs had been organised when it was noted that the “colours had fallen in”. This raised questions about the materials that Lauder had used. Thanks to a partnership with the University of Glasgow, a portable X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) device was used to identify the chemical make-up of the artist’s palette.
This revealed that Lauder used a combination of traditional pigments such as Naples Yellow (lead antimonate) and more “modern” 19th-century inventions such as Chrome Yellow. The distribution of the pigments in localised areas suggested that he was using these newer paints deliberately rather than being duped by an unscrupulous artists’ supplier.
While the treatment was underway, two preparatory works for the painting were installed in the same gallery. This proved particularly useful when the painting was examined using infrared reflectography.
Comparison between the images showed that while he made detailed preparatory studies in oil and watercolour, Lauder allowed himself the creative freedom to make changes directly on the canvas.
To share these discoveries with the public while general access to the galleries was prohibited, a range of digital content was created. Lesley wrote three blogs about the history of the picture and the conservation process.
She was also interviewed on the radio and posted regularly on social media. Generous funding also enabled us to commission a legacy film that captured some of our learning from this project.
Despite the “live” aspect of this work being made impossible by the pandemic, the conservation treatment went ahead with enhanced digital exposure and the project provided an invaluable opportunity to develop new ways to share conservation stories with our audiences.
The widespread interest in this type of content has also shaped the interpretation plan for this painting when it is installed in one of a series of new displays created as part of the major redevelopment of the Scottish National Gallery, Celebrating Scotland’s Art: The Scottish National Gallery Project.
Freya Spoor is assistant curator on Celebrating Scotland's Art: The Scottish National Gallery Project