Conserving one of our most important portraits
Out of the darkness and into the light
Recently we conserved the portrait of one of our founders, Noel Desenfans, removing years of discoloured varnish to bring it into the light. Assistant Curator Helen Hillyard explains...
The restored portrait of Noel Joseph Desenfans, by James Northcote, 1796.
Noel Desenfans (1744–1807) was one of the founding figures of Dulwich Picture Gallery, together with his business partner Francis Bourgeois and his wife Margaret Desenfans. Born in France, he first came to London as a language teacher. Later, he tried his hand as an art dealer and – remarkably, for someone with almost no previous experience – found great success. His crowning achievement came when he and Bourgeois received a commission from the King of Poland to form a Royal Collection. In 1795, however, the King was forced to abdicate and the plans for a collection collapsed. Nevertheless, this apparent ‘failure’ resulted in the birth of Dulwich Picture Gallery, after the three founders decided to create their own art museum.
And yet, despite Noel Desenfans’ important role in the history of the Gallery, for many years his portrait by James Northcote had been shrouded in darkness – quite literally! Until the recent conservation of this work, the painting was obscured by a layer of dull, yellowed varnish. The painting also required structural repairs. The canvas was weak and, in order to ensure its future stability, it needed to be relined; a highly specialised process where a new, stronger canvas is attached to the back of the original. Due to the time and resources required, the decision to conserve a painting is not one undertaken lightly. Given Noel Desenfans’ central role in the Gallery’s history, however, we considered this painting a very strong candidate for conservation work.
The previous version (right) and the restored painting side-by-side.
After a painstaking restoration, the work has now been transformed. The first thing you notice is how much brighter the painting is. We are able to see, much more clearly, the different colours and textures within the painting; from the red material peeking out from under his jacket, to his bright white cravat. According to his biographers, Noel Desenfans was a warm, friendly man, and we get a greater sense of this too – the whole portrait feels more dynamic and lively. To ensure the painting looked its best, it also needed to be reframed, as the wrong type of framing can drastically alter the appearance of a picture. Although the canvas of the Desenfans portrait is actually an oval shape, it was previously paired with an overly-large rectangular frame. We knew it would be a challenge to find a suitable oval frame but, by a huge stroke of luck, we managed to acquire a historic example, of almost exactly the same dimensions as the painting. The picture can now be shown as the artist, James Northcote, intended.
Thanks to the generous support of Ann Douglas and Christopher and Charlotte King to conserve the painting, and the Gamboge Fine Art Society and members of the 1811 Club to acquire the frame, Noel Desenfans’ portrait has been brought back to life, offering insight into the characters who founded the Gallery.
Explore the restored painting in high resolution here.
Assistant Curator, Helen Hillyard
Thank you for reading this article – we hope you enjoyed it!
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