A marriage restored
Grant will enable US museum to treat previously untouched paintings by Hogarth of society couple
By Emily Sharpe. Conservation, Issue 244, March 2013
Published online: 13 March 2013
The Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts became the first American museum to own a painting by William Hogarth when, in 1909, its director bought the pendant portraits William James and Mrs William James, 1744, from a London dealer for $15,000—a bargain, as negotiations had begun at $20,000.
Although the portraits of the 18th-century English gentleman and his “trophy wife” have been popular with visitors for more than a century, the paintings have remained in a storeroom for the past five years because of conservation issues. They are now undergoing treatment and should be reinstalled in the museum’s galleries within a year or so, thanks to a €25,000 grant from the Tefaf (The European Fine Art Foundation) Museum Restoration Fund. The fund was established in 2012 as one of the Maastricht-based fine art fair’s Silver Jubilee initiatives.
“Aside from being obscured by several layers of wax and varnish, the portraits are in pretty good condition,” says Rita Albertson, the museum’s chief conservator, adding that the paintings have not undergone any previous treatment at the museum. She suspects that they have received very little treatment since they left Hogarth’s studio.
Digital X-rays have shown that the pictures were made by “a sure hand”, Albertson says. The images revealed only minor alterations. “For the most part, it looks as if the works were painted spontaneously,” she says.
A fine couple
“William James is clearly proud of himself… showing off his fine costume and his lovely wife, who must have been considered a trophy wife,” she says. “It will be a revelation when the varnish is removed. I’m anticipating that the detail of the fabric will come alive.”
According to Henk van Os, the chair of Tefaf’s restoration fund, the fair received 32 grant proposals. The €50,000 grant was split between the Worcester museum and Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, which is conserving a pair of 18th-century candelabra by Piranesi. Van Os says that one of the reasons for awarding the grant is that the paintings have not been conserved or subjected to a detailed technical analysis.
“The conservation treatments will resolve how the artist’s intention has been affected by the paintings’ poor condition,” he says, adding that “authenticity will be retained by incorporating scholarship that relates to the origin and context of the painting.” He says the treatment will enable the works to be included in “Hogarth and the English Character”, a show the Worcester museum is planning for 2016.
Although the museum now has the funds to treat the portraits, it still needs around $20,000 to restore the frames. Albertson warns that the unveiling of the pictures could be held up if this money is not found soon.
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