Sarah Maisey conserving a Reynolds portrait

Senior Remedial Paintings Conservator, Royal Oak Foundation Conservation Studio at Knole, Kent

Interviewed by Veronica Walker-Smith in 2023

Interviewed in the year celebrating the 300th anniversary of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s birth, Sarah Maisey speaks about conserving his 1770-1772 portrait of The Hon. Theresa Robinson, Mrs John Parker’ [which was accepted in lieu of estate duty by HM Government in 1956 and on loan to the National Trust for Saltram House.]

Sarah shares her memories of the challenges presented by this large painting; and how she valued an informally formed support group of Reynolds’s conservators, curators and art historians.

As Senior Remedial Paintings Conservator at the Royal Oak Foundation conservation studio at Knole in Kent, Sarah also speaks about how her recent work on the Reynolds portrait also drew together all the threads of technical, curatorial, conservation and connoisseurship expertise to complete a major piece of work which informs and enhances visitor experience in the National Trust.

Conserving Reynolds's portrait of The Hon. Theresa Robinson, Mrs John Parker

That was a really daunting project for me. Reynolds is one of these artists who conservators rightly get very nervous about. He’s mixing his paint with all sorts of things, waxes, resins; you know, he’s using very fading pigments; you know, he uses these toning layers – are they toning layers? Or are they varnish layers with dirt in them? He comes back as well to restore his own paintings when they’ve been damaged. Usually, when we’re looking for signs of later restoration, we can go, ‘It’s obviously restoration that’s going over cracks or something we can remove?’ But you can’t necessarily make that assumption with Reynolds.

So he just presents all these challenges to conservators which are quite intimidating. And often with Reynolds, you know, you look at a painting, and you go, ‘Actually, I can’t ethically, safely clean this painting. And that was always a possibility with Theresa, and if it had been the case, it would have been difficult because she was just so yellow. You know, she had really so many layers of discoloured varnish on her, that she was just so, so compromised by these things. It was first a case of well, setting expectations; and saying to the house team that, ‘We will do our best.’ But you can’t promise.

Working with a Reynolds support group of experts

We set up what we colloquially called a Reynolds support group. So we got together with conservators in English Heritage, who were also conserving Reynolds paintings for the 300th anniversary; private conservators who were dealing also with National Trust paintings, but in their own studios; and conservators from other institutions like the Tate and The Wallace Collection; in particular a lady called Alex Gent who had done her PhD several years earlier looking at a number of paintings in The Wallace Collection and she was really able through that to advance our understanding of Reynolds paintings and the sorts of things Reynolds did and the sorts of things to look out for.

Drawing together multi-disciplinary expertise

Where there’s something that might be, have specific engagement potential, something that has quite a lot of technical analysis that we wouldn’t necessarily do ourselves, but we would draw together. So we  get people to do the infra-red,  and maybe get someone else to do the cross-sectional analysis, someone else to do the X-ray. They might do their own areas of interpretation but it requires somebody to read those reports; to understand those reports; to be looking at the painting and draw all the threads together. And that’s where the [Royal Oak Foundation Conservation] Studio is great.

The fact that we’re working on the painting alongside that means we can draw all those threads together. Often there’s then great engagement potential drawn around that. And the other thing we do is you know, where something’s really key to the story of the house, and there’s things we can discover in the course of conservation, we do these Webex talks to volunteers in both the house and to the volunteers at Knole, who are volunteering in the Studio, talking about the work we do. And it just allows the properties to enhance those stories.

This page was added by Veronica Walker-Smith on 22/08/2023.

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