Frame by frame

Paintings make up a large part of the collection here at Polesden Lacey and it is because of the paintings that we have the house today. Mrs Greville left the house to the National Trust so that the public could see her collection of art work – she even stated that a gallery could be built on site if necessary. Like  the rest of the collection, they need to be cared for.

Our paintings are cared for by specialist conservators and any remedial conservation work is usually done off site in their studios, but we do still do some preventive conservation work to ensure that the paintings are well cared for and don’t suffer any damage in the future.

As part of of our preventive conservation work we dust each painting’s frame and if necessary the painting itself. Dust is a very damaging agent of deterioration and if not removed can become ingrained with time, so its removal as part of our housekeeping routine is important. Because of the fragile nature of paintings we do not dust these as part of our annual clean like we do with other objects in the collection, instead we will dust them every 3 to 5 years depending on the level of dust. This time around it has been three years since the paintings were last dusted. Of course there are always exceptions to this rule, sometimes the painting is too fragile to be dusted by house staff or paintings which are nearer to doors or exit points might need to be dusted more frequently, we always monitor the paintings regularly to ensure they are getting the appropriate care.

Those of you who have been to Polesden before will have often seen us undertaking our conservation work as a team, usually we will put all hands on deck to get a room cleaned but in this instance it was slow and steady that won the race. Each painting is removed from the wall by the team and placed on a well padded table, we work slowly with one painting at a time. We carefully inspect the painting using a raking light. We look at the frame to check for any new sings of damage,  lifting of the gilding on the frame, or any loose moulding. We also check the canvas – the raking light allows us to look more carefully and see areas where paint may be lifting or cracking. When there is lifting visible we will not attempt to dust the painting but we do note it on the condition report and will let our specialist conservator know.

Conservation in Action

Dusting the frames with a pony hair brush

Once we have inspected the painting we can then dust it. Using an ergo vacuum cleaner we gently brush the dust from the frame into the vacuum to prevent the dust from settling elsewhere. Because many of our frames are very delicate we use a very soft pony hair  paint brush which will not scratch or damage the frame as we dust, for the canvas we use a flat pony hair brush – which is again extremely soft and useful for this delicate work.

One of the delights of this sort of conservation task is getting to see the back of the paintings. Now you might think ‘whats so special about the back of a painting?’ It is the reverse of the paintings that can often tell us so much about the paintings provenance and its story. In my earlier post I talked about some of the paintings that had been on loan to museums in Mrs Greville’s time, so when dusting the paintings I always look for the exhibition labels to see where these wonderful paintings have traveled to over the years.


A label on the reverse of “the masters patison” in the dining room showing it was part of an exhibition at the Royal Academy.

We also have one painting in our collection that has a wonderful secret hidden on the reverse.The small painting of an unknown woman sits on the corner of the south and west corridor in the house and can often go unnoticed by visitors. This paintings is by a Venetian artist called Jacometto Veneziano who was active around 1472-94. On the reverse of this panel painting we find another image, of of St Mark. Its quite likely that the reverse image was painted so that the painting could easily be flipped over to conceal the painting of the unknown woman revealing the religious figure instead. It was a rare opportunity to get to see this image and show visitors and volunteers who were passing when I was dusting.

The unknown woman

The unknown woman

The image of St Mark on the reverse of the painting

The image of St Mark on the reverse of the painting

Over the course of the week we have made it through the paintings in the west corridor and half of the south corridor, we still have a lot more to dust, so keep your eyes peeled for us dusting the paintings in the future.


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