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More4 series Cleaning Britain’s Greatest Treasures to explore exhaustive restoration of Anglesey Abbey’s huge Constable painting



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The story behind how exhaustive cleaning work helped solve the mystery of John Constable’s largest painting - now back on display at Anglesey Abbey - will feature in an episode of a new TV series.

The Embarkation of George IV from Whitehall is one of the celebrated English landscape painter’s famous “six-footers”, but has been the subject of debate and intrigue since it was discovered in his studio following his death in 1837.

A National Trust conservator at work on John Constable’s largest-known painting. Picture: National Trust Images
A National Trust conservator at work on John Constable’s largest-known painting. Picture: National Trust Images

Its story is explored in episode two of the More4 series Cleaning Britain’s Greatest Treasures, narrated by Sheridan Smith, which will be broadcast at 8pm on Sunday (August 7).

The series explores the work of dedicated conservation cleaners around the country who look after national treasures at locations from stately homes and museums to historic churches and industrial revolution factories.

Sharing their tools and techniques, they provide insight into the treasures and their original owners, and a window into their history.

A National Trust conservator at work on John Constable’s largest-known painting. Picture: National Trust Images
A National Trust conservator at work on John Constable’s largest-known painting. Picture: National Trust Images

The episode titled Constable Six Footer - which refers to the painting’s height, as it is nearly eight foot wide - goes behind the scenes at the National Trust’s Royal Oak Foundation Conservation Studio, in Knole, Kent.

There, the cleaners of Constable’s oil painting of Waterloo Bridge spend months carefully cleaning away the grime and the varnish, hoping that doing so will unravel the 200-year-old debate that has divided art historians, who have been unable to agree whether it was intended as a painting for exhibition and sale or some kind of sketch for another work.

The latter, oddly enough, could actually be of more value to the experts.

A National Trust conservator at work on John Constable’s largest-known painting. Picture: National Trust Images
A National Trust conservator at work on John Constable’s largest-known painting. Picture: National Trust Images

Under the direction of senior national conservator Rebecca Hellen, paintings conservator Sarah Maisey spent 270 hours cleaning the painting in a converted barn.

While cleaning away the surface dirt is easy enough, removing the thick layer of yellow varnish that has obscured the painting is a task that takes weeks.

Sarah has to work very carefully with a range of solvents to remove the varnish without damaging the oil paint below. The problem is that different paint pigments react in different ways.

An X-Ray image of the painting which helped guide National Trust conservators in their work on the painting by John Constable showing the opening of Waterloo Bridge in 1817. Picture: National Trust Images
An X-Ray image of the painting which helped guide National Trust conservators in their work on the painting by John Constable showing the opening of Waterloo Bridge in 1817. Picture: National Trust Images

When the varnish is finally removed, it reveals Constable’s colours, brushstrokes, layers and glazes for the first time in nearly two centuries.

The show then reveals whether the country’s top Constable experts agree with Sarah’s own theories about the mystery of the painting.

Anglesey Abbey is offering exclusive tours in August on its Constable Revealed object trail, which includes the restored painting.

The largest known painting by John Constable. Picture: National Trust Images
The largest known painting by John Constable. Picture: National Trust Images

On Saturday (August 6), from 2-3.30pm, one of the world’s leading experts on the Suffolk painter, Anne Lyles, will join the tour, with a drinks reception afterwards with Anne in the Upper Gallery.

Then from 11am to 12.30pm on Monday (August 8), a knowledgeable volunteer guide and a British Sign Language interpreter will offer an intimate of the diverse Constable collection at the National Trust site.

Suitable for anyone who is deaf or hard of hearing, it will showcase some of the painter’s more unusual works, from his early Suffolk landscapes to late watercolours.

Rehanging the largest known painting by John Constable at Anglesey Abbey. Picture: National Trust Images
Rehanging the largest known painting by John Constable at Anglesey Abbey. Picture: National Trust Images

Janet Jephcott, experience and visitor programming manager at Anglesey Abbey said: “The BSL interpreted Constable Revealed tour is an excellent addition to our property and will help the deaf community feel more connected to the visitor experience. Thank you to British Sign Language for making it possible and we look forward to working together in the future.”

General admission applies, with free entry for National Trust members. The tours are free but £5 donations towards the care of the collection will be gratefully received. Tickets for the tours need to be booked in advance at nationaltrust.org.uk/anglesey-abbey.



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