Painting Restoration Strips Away Layers to Reveal a Treasure

by Jeff Farkas

The restored painting of Mary Tudor
-Milwaukee, WI . 
At first glance, the heavily damaged painting appeared to be an authentic, if not especially significant, period piece.  But, as experts at American Conservators Inc. removed layers of grime and addressed the effects of earlier “repairs,” an astonishing image emerged:  A portrait of the 14-year-old Mary Tudor.  According to Jeff Farkas, President of American Conservators Inc., a Milwaukee-based firm active in multiple phases of conservation and restoration work, “The painting had hung for years over a fireplace, and the grime, combined with layers of old varnish, had all but obscured the face.  From the first, we knew that this would be a great challenge.”
The 22” x 24” portrait was painted directly on a lattice of cypress or oak which had been adhered to a plywood backing in the late 19th or early 20th century.  According to Dmitri Rybchenkov, Vice-president and Director of Conservation, “After our initial evaluation, we decided to leave the painting on the board rather than to try to remove it.  The first step was to stabilize the work and correct the worst problems.  It soon became apparent that we were dealing with the effect of multiple restorations going back as far as 300 years – some of which were decidedly amateur in character.”
As layers of old varnish and non-original paint were removed, the image came gradually to life.  Obscured jewelry reappeared; the date “1539” which had been over painted by a previous restorer, was revealed to be actually “1530.”  Most significantly, the face of the subject which had been poorly altered and defaced by paint bubbles and grime to resemble that of an older woman, was revealed as the image of a young girl in her early to mid-teens. 
“As we studied the face, the dress and the details of the painting, we were reminded of a life portrait of Mary Tudor which hangs in the Prado.  On comparing our work to it, we found incredible similarities.  The chair in which she sits is the same, as are her robe and jewelry.  Most interestingly, the Prado portrait – which portrays Mary as Queen – includes the image of the great seal of England.  This is absent from our work which would indicate that it was done prior to her coronation.  Referencing the date of 1530, it would appear that the painting depicts her at 14 years of age.”
Regarding the artist and the origin of the painting, Dmitri offers several possible scenarios.  “The painting is unsigned, but that is not uncommon in works of this period.  Although Holbein was the court painter to the Tudors, I do not believe that this is his work.  It may have been a member of his school or a traveling artist.  Clearly, it was done by someone who was extremely proficient although not of the first rank.”
As to its origin, Dmitri speculates, “Because Mary was the last Catholic Queen, she later became an object of veneration to England’s Catholics.  It is possible that one of them commissioned this work and perhaps kept it in a private chapel.  This would explain the arched top of the portrait – an unusual shape which we have found to be original to the piece.  It may, likewise, have been a copy of the Prado portrait in which the artist attempted to reverse the effects of aging and depict the Queen in the bloom of her youth.  Or, it might have been painted from life when she was 14.”
Although the painting has been returned to the owner, extensive photography permits the experts at American Conservators to continue an investigation into its origin.  Jeff Farkas is not optimistic about any further discoveries:  “All ladies have their secrets, and I think Mary just might not want us to invade her privacy more than we have.”
American Conservators Inc., specializes in the conservation and restoration of works of art, documents and artifacts of artistic and/or historical importance in any media. 
For further information, contact Jeff Farkas at 414-353-5055