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Dealing with distemper: National Trust Shugborough conserves its crumbling paintings

Lucy Critchlow from Critchlow & Kukkonen Ltd, doing trials on one of the very large (2.7m x3.6m) paintings ©National Trust/Rod Kirkpatrick

The National Trust is getting to grips with some stunning yet problematic canvasses as part of a major conservation drive at Shugborough

The medium of painting in distemper is likely to be, to the causal art enthusiast, something of a grey area. A contrast in historical times with the more popular tempera, the term refers to an ancient type of paint that comprised of water, chalk and pigment, bound by adhesive of either vegetable or animal origin (excluding eggs).

Works including The Entombment, by Early Netherlandish painter Dieric Bouts, and The Raphael Cartoons are believed to have been created using distemper; as are a number of paintings by the French artist Édouard Vuillard. Yet due to the fact that it could be easily marked and notoriously wasn’t waterproof, it was more often employed by artists to paint banners or decorations for temporary celebrations and, despite being rendered obsolete by the growing availability of oil and latex-based paints, was used continually through to the end of the 19th century.

The paintings are undergoing conservation to treat areas of flaking paint ©National Trust/Rod Kirkpatrick

Lucy Critchlow (left) and Lucy Partridge (right) conserving one of the rare ‘capricci’ paintings ©National Trust/Rod Kirkpatrick

An attempt to temper the natural deterioration of distemper paint is currently at the centre of the conservation project taking place at the National Trust’s Shugborough Estate in Staffordshire. A set of large fantasy landscape paintings – known as ‘capricci’ – believed to have been commissioned when a new wing was added to the Georgian mansion by 1748, are being treated so as to ensure their protection for years to come.

The paintings, eight in total, mostly depict the ruins of Bologna in Italy, and are said to have inspired the creation of Shugborough’s walled garden architecture the Ruin, the Shepherd’s Monument and the Cat’s Monument. Compared to more traditional oil-based paintings these are lighter, more chalky in appearance, and – like all distemper paintings – prone to the absorption of moisture and flaking.

The pictures are unusual for being painted mostly in distemper – a medium where the paint pigment is mixed with glue ©National Trust/Rod Kirkpatrick

Due to the unusual paint, the Trust conservators commissioned detailed trials and tested several different techniques for surface cleaning and treatment to ensure the long term stability of the painted surfaces and improve the appearance of the paintings.

Tina Sitwell, the Trust’s Paintings Conservation Adviser explains: “We will be using an adhesive to soften and reattach the flaking paint and stabilise the canvas, assisted by small delicate tools including a heated spatula to lay the paint back onto the canvas.

Lucy Critchlow (left) and Lucy Partridge (right) working on one of the eight rare ‘capricci’ paintings, which show fantasy classical landscapes of ruins and buildings ©National Trust/Rod Kirkpatrick

“It is a daunting task on such large paintings. Six of them are nearly three metres high with the largest two being over three and a half metres wide.  Two of the paintings were enlarged when the room [in Shugborough] was altered to close off two doors, with new canvas being sewn on which adds to the interest of understanding and conserving them.”

As well as preserving the paintings, another aim of the project is to establish who actually created them. While they are currently attributed to Italian artist Pietro Paltronieri, it now appears that various artists may have subsequently worked on them.

The conservation work on all eight paintings (and their frames) will continue throughout 2019 and visitors can see the paintings and learn more about the project when the mansion reopens to the public on March 18.

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Shugborough Estate - National Trust

nr Stafford, Staffordshire

Leave the 21st century behind and step into the real working environments of The Complete Working Historic Estate. Shugborough is a rare example of the survival of a complete estate, with all major buildings including mansion house, servants' quarters, model farm and walled garden See, feel, hear and smell history…

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