Paint… and butterflies? Conserving and researching a painting by Otto Marseus van Schrieck

Sophie Lamb, postgraduate intern

Flowers, Insects and Reptiles by Otto Marseus van Schrieck is an oil painting on canvas, dated 1673. This work was brought to the Hamilton Kerr Institute for treatment and investigation, after receiving generous support from the Woodmansterne Art Conservation Awards in 2019. The painting belongs in the Fitzwilliam Museum collection. It was bequeathed in 1834 by Daniel Mesman and is one of three paintings by this artist in the Museum. Only two other paintings by van Schrieck are held in public collections in the UK.

Otto Marseus Van Schrieck, 1673. ‘Flowers, Insects and Reptiles’: before treatment. Photograph © Chris Titmus, Hamilton Kerr Institute.

Flowers, Insects and Reptiles depicts a nocturnal gathering of creatures by the edge of a pool of water. The grouping is lit by pale light coming from the left-side of the composition. From a mossy patch of earth in the foreground springs a cluster of thistles, weeds, carnations and a rose, and around this composition are numerous butterflies and moths, dragonfly, lizard and a snake, which snaps out from behind a leaf at a passing butterfly.

Otto Marseus van Schriek was a Dutch-born painter active in the later part of the seventeenth century. He travelled to Rome early in his career and later set up his home and studio in the marshy outskirts of Amsterdam known as “the land of snakes” (Jorink, 2014). He is known for creating a signature genre of painting, the forest floor still-life, which is often termed sottobosco in Italian. This genre developed from conventional floral still-life painting, shifting the floral ensemble out of vases and into the forest, resulting in eye-level portrait of the dark world of the undergrowth and the creeping fauna that inhabited it. His works teem with reptiles and amphibians, toads and snakes, and, hovering above, butterflies and moths.

Otto Marseus Van Schrieck was fascinated by animals and was especially intrigued by the small reptiles and amphibians that could be found around the ponds and wetlands near his home, just outside Amsterdam. Collectors and dealers visiting his studio would be shown the menagerie of snakes and creatures he bred and kept as models for his paintings. He spent so much time hunting around the damp woodland and undergrowth that he earnt the nickname ‘Snuffler’ amongst the circle of painters he socialised with (ibid.). Van Schrieck worked on the borders of art and science (Seelig, 2018); he was interested in Natural History and especially in the discussions around spontaneous generation, which is reflected in the accuracy of the animals depicted in his works, although set in fanciful imaginative situations.1

A close-up detail of the snake and butterfly. Photograph © Hamilton Kerr Institute.

Van Schrieck’s technique and use of butterflies

Van Schrieck was commercially successful in his lifetime, and so would have developed a methodical approach to painting, since it would be economically effective to do so (Madeleine, n.d.). In terms of the materials he used, it is likely that he did not prepare his own canvases, since readily prepared canvases were available to buy in the Netherlands at the time (Wallert, 1999). A canvas maker would typically size the linen canvas with an animal glue such as rabbit skin, in order to protect the fabric from the potentially damaging effects of oil paint. Following this a ground layer would have been applied to provide a suitable surface on which to paint. This painting has a reasonably thick application of a white ground, which may be either lead or chalk based. It was often the case that an artist would apply a second layer of priming in a preferred colour to work on; however, it is not clear whether van Schrieck applied this second priming before painting (Howard, n.d). He would then start by making a detailed drawing on the priming; artists contemporary to van Schrieck were known to make the underdrawing in silverpoint, black chalk, or ink. The painting would then be built up in layers, consisting of an imprimatura (a first wash of a single colour), then the dead-colour (a flat wash of colour for each form depicted), followed by successive layers of glazes to model shadow and form, and finally fine details such as patterns and highlights (ibid.).

Van Schrieck carefully arranged the composition of the intertwining thistle, flowers and reptiles to give an illusion of movement and depth. For example, the thistle shown in the left of the foreground is depicted convincingly in a three-dimensional space; pale light reflects off its prickly edges. The lighting of the scene is complex with emphasised contrasts of light and dark, and this gives it a sense of tension and movement. One feature stands out arousing curiosity: the butterflies. These have a stiff and static appearance, which contrasts with the naturalistic depiction of the foliage and reptiles around them. The butterflies appear noticeably pale and yellow against the dark background, as if they exist in a plane superimposed onto the rest of the composition.

On inspection under a microscope, a regular pattern of minute scales can be discerned on the butterflies’ painted wings (Webexhibits, n.d.). Van Schrieck practised the unusual technique of pressing butterfly wings into wet paint so that the tiny scales remained caught in it, and the butterfly’s natural colours became a part of the painting. Using a brush he would then paint in the body and make small corrections. In order for the wings not to disappear against the dark background paint, a butterfly-shaped reserve would have been created in white prior to their application, to allow reflected light to shine through their colours (Steensma, 1999). This technique, which has been identified in other works by van Schrieck, is also evident on this painting (Ibid; Beier, 1987).

Opinions differ about precisely how the scale transfer technique was carried out; one theory is that van Schrieck pressed the wings directly onto a prepared patch of paint in the shape of the butterfly (Steensma, 1999). Another idea cites a set of instructions for a ‘double-pass’ technique whereby the wings would be first pressed to dry between sheets of paper coated with gum arabic. On peeling the wing membrane away, the scales would remain adhered to the gum arabic. The paper sheet would then be cut to the outline of the wing, and this would be placed face down onto freshly varnished paint. This would then be left to dry. Since varnish is hydrophobic, the scales could be released from the paper using water, leaving them embedded in the varnish the correct way up (Berthier et al, 2008).

The butterflies have greatly changed in appearance since they were applied fresh. Most of the scales have faded due to exposure to light – the effects of even small doses of UV light exposure will accumulate over time – and have now become colourless. Their yellow appearance is due to the presence of an overlying discoloured varnish. Some reddish scales have not faded, and enough remains to help with the identification of the corresponding species (with thanks to Russell Stebbings of the department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, for his help). The butterflies in this painting were identified as being native to the Netherlands and would have been also native to Cambridge, although the Large Tortiseshell is now considered extinct in the UK and the Garden Tiger Moth is declining in numbers.

Condition of the painting

Although the painting was in a stable condition when it arrived, its image was partially obscured by multiple layers of very old, non-original natural resin varnish that had degraded. This substantial varnish layer had become hazy, extremely yellowed and rather opaque, making it appear as if one were peering at the scene through thick fog. The dulled original colours and their reduced tonal range resulted in the loss of the sense of depth and many details of the artist’s intended composition were obscured, including the skyline and the intricate detail of the foliage. It was decided that removing the discoloured varnish would greatly improve the appearance of the painting and restore these aspects that are so central to van Schrieck’s oeuvre and philosophy. The application of a new varnish would then re-saturate the colours and provide renewed protection to the paint surface.

Conservation treatment

Minute paint samples were taken from two locations (one from the background and one from a butterfly wing) in order to ascertain whether it would be possible to safely clean the varnish without affecting the delicate paint layers. Examination of the samples in cross-section indicated that there were at least four layers of varnish present. These samples further showed that the scales were placed onto the painting and then varnished. The scales appear to be embedded in a varnish layer, possibly the varnish used during the double transfer method. This is, however, distinct from the main upper varnish. It was decided, following a series of testing and further observations, that cleaning this later coating gradually whilst leaving the imbedded scales intact would be possible.

Cleaning of the painting is currently underway. The painting also presented a layer of modern synthetic varnish, which was applied when the painting last visited the Hamilton Kerr Institute in the mid-1990s in preparation for an exhibition. This topmost varnish was removed first before the older discoloured natural resin varnishes were tackled. A water-based method of cleaning was developed to safely remove these layers gradually, avoiding the excessive use of organic solvents and swab action which could potentially disturb sensitive layers such as oil glazes or the varnish containing the embedded scales.

The treatment is ongoing at the time of writing this blog. Once the varnish has been cleaned from the paint layers, I aim to carry out further technical examination to gain more understanding of the pigments, binders and the technique used, in particular the butterfly scales application. I will then fill and retouch any losses to the paint layer whilst leaving the butterflies untouched. Afterwards a final varnish will be applied. I am also working on reconstructing the technique so that I can learn how it might have been used, but also to gain a glimpse of how the painting may have appeared originally. We know that the butterflies and moths have drastically changed over many years and it is not possible to restore their original appearance on the painting, but it might at least be possible to see the original intention on a reconstruction.

Conserving this painting is an interesting challenge in terms of trying to find a safe way to clean the painting whilst preserving the very fragile remains of the butterfly wings, especially since the artist’s precise method for transferring the scales is not yet fully understood. It is hoped that this project will bring new insight into the study of van Schrieck’s painting methods, and perhaps open further research into experiments with embedding organic material in paintings and methods for treating them. Flowers, Insects and Reptiles is proof of van Schrieck’s inventiveness and skill as an artist and of  his parallel interest in the natural world.

Many thanks to Alice Tavares da Silva, Henrietta Ward and Russell Stebbings for their guidance and support.

With thanks to the Woodmansterne Art Conservation Awards for their generous support in funding this project.


Beier, B., 1987. >>Contre-Epreuves<< in der barocken Stillebenmaleri. Maltechnik 1. Restauro. pp. 35-39.

Berthier, S. ; Boulenguez, J. ; Menu, M. ; Mottin, B. 2008. ‘Butterfly inclusions in van Schrieck masterpieces’. Techniques and optical properties. Applied Physics A, 2008. 92(1). pp.51-57.

Howard, H. N.D. Support and Ground. The National Gallery. [online] Available at: Accessed 9th March 2020.

Jorink, E. 2014. Snakes, Fungi and Insects. Otto Marseus van Schrieck, Johannes Swammerdam and the Theory of Spontaneous Generation, in: K.A.E. Enenkel, P.J. Smith. eds., Zoology in Early Modern Culture. Intersections of Science, Theology, Philology, and Political and Religious Education. 32(2014). pp. 197-234.

Levine, R. and Evers, C. 1999. The Slow Death of Spontaneous Generation (1668-1859). [online] Access Health @ the National Health Museum. Available at: Accessed 12 March 2020.

Steensma, S. 1999. Otto Marseus van Schrieck: Leben und Werk. Hildesheim; Zurich; New York: Georg Olms Verlag.

White, M. N.D. The Highly Systematic Methodology of Dutch 17th-century Painting Techniques. [online] Available at: Accessed 27 March 2020.

Wallert, A. 1999. Methods and materials of still-life painting in the seventeenth century. In: A. Wallert, ed. 1999. Still Lifes: Techniques and Style: An Examination of Paintings from the Rijksmuseum. Zwolle: Waanders Publishers. Webexhibits. N.D. Causes of Color: Butterflies. [online] Available at: Accessed 27 March 2020.

About the author:

Sophie Lamb graduated in 2018 with an MA in the Conservation of Fine Art (Easel Paintings) from Northumbria University. Prior to this she completed her BA (Hons) in Fine Art from Oxford Brookes University. While there she won an Erasmus scholarship to study oil painting and drawing at the Vilnius Academy of Art. Additionally, she studied on the foundation year in Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Manchester. Her projects at Northumbria included treating a 19th century painting on millboard, which led on to an extended research project investigating unusual materials for painting supports and investigating an 18th century painting on papier-mâché board. During her training she undertook conservation internships with the V&A museum and with various private conservation studios around London and East Anglia. 

To contact Sophie:

Technical Examination of a Portrait of Thomas Sutton

This oil on panel portrait belongs to the City of Lincoln and depicts the founder of the Charterhouse, London, Thomas Sutton (1532–1611). The painting has been lent to the Charterhouse since the 1970s and was recently sent to the Hamilton Kerr Institute for technical analysis and study, in the hope of clarifying long-standing questions about its origin.

Figure 1. Thomas Sutton, Unknown English artist, 1622 (©Titmus/Courtesy of the Charterhouse, London)
Figure 1. Portrait of Thomas Sutton, Unknown English artist, 1622 (©Titmus/Courtesy of the Charterhouse, London)


The painting is attributed to an unknown English artist, but the date of the painting has been contested with two different theories as to the origin of the portrait. The date of c.1590 was suggested by Sir Roy Strong in the 1970s, and is based on the sitter’s age (Sutton would have been 58 in 1590) assuming that the portrait was painted from life. It was also postulated that the illustration of a cannon in the book, on which Sutton rests his hand, suggests that the sitter was at the time Master of the Ordnance (an office which Sutton held until 1594).

However, it has subsequently been suggested by the art historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, that the painting could have been a posthumous portrait of Sutton. Painting styles and portrait compositions do not change much between the late 16th century and early 17th century, making it difficult to judge on these aesthetic distinctions the date of a painting of this type. It was hoped that through technical examination, evidence of the painting’s making might come to light that could decide the long-standing question of whether this painting was a portrait from life or not.

During the examination of the painting, both under the microscope and using the other imaging techniques such as infra-red reflectography (IRR) and X-radiography, it became apparent that the painting has been severely damaged in its long history. These damages are old and hidden under several layers of restoration. It is common for paintings of this age to have suffered over time, but this painting is remarkable in the extent of the restorations currently present.


Thomas Sutton was an enigmatic and shrewd Elizabethan financier who amassed a great fortune during his life and became something of a myth after his death. He was known to his contemporaries as ‘Croesus’ or ‘Riche Sutton’,[1] and had the reputation of being the richest commoner in England when he died in 1611 at the age of 79. Originating from Lincolnshire, Sutton was a talented civil servant and made money from wise investments and purchasing favourable leases. However, it was really through his somewhat disreputable practices as a money-lender that Sutton accumulated and expanded his fortune.[2] Usury, while legalised in 1570, was not considered wholly respectable and criticised as a way of extorting money.

Sutton bought the Charterhouse in 1611 for the grand sum of £13,000 but died later that year, leaving an astonishing sum of money (some £50,000) for the establishment of the hospital and school in his will. This was not popular with Sutton’s heir-at-law, his nephew Simon Baxter, who, displeased with his inheritance of £300, tried to storm the Charterhouse by force.[3] After his death, Sutton’s will was published, and the astonishing gesture of donating almost his entire fortune to a charitable cause transformed the careful and private businessman into a Protestant saint of charity, hailed by the clergy as a ‘hero’, a ‘saint’ and even ‘the right Phoenix of charity’.

This fame prompted an interest in his life, and since the career of Sutton as a reclusive ‘usurer’ was not palatable to his fans, more exciting tales of Sutton were spread. He was even portrayed as a valiant soldier/merchant prince, who, through his thirty agents abroad and his privateering exploits at sea, contributed to victory in the great patriotic wars against Spain. While these myths have been eroded over time, Sutton’s final gesture of charity in the founding of the Charterhouse has certainly given this sombre character a place in the history of London.


The painting prominently displays two painted inscriptions and two coats of arms, all of which have been overpainted and are somewhat illegible in places. The two different coats of arms can be identified as Thomas Sutton’s personal coat of arms on the right-hand side, which was assigned to him after his death, and the Lincoln coat of arms on the left.

Donation Inscription blog
Figure 5: The ‘donation’ inscription in visible light and x-radiography (©Bayliss/Courtesy of the Charterhouse, London)

Restoration Inscription blog
Figure 6: The ‘restoration’ inscription in visible light and x-radiography (©Bayliss/Courtesy of the Charterhouse, London)

The inscription at the top, above Sutton’s head, is an unusual addition to a painting and refers to the restoration of the painting in the 18th century by the mayor of Lincoln. The inscription reads, “This Picture was Beau/tified & Refresh’d Ano/1750 George Ken/Major”.

The other inscription is harder to read as it has been damaged and badly overpainted in the past. X-radiography is a technique by which we can see ‘through’ the paint layers, or more precisely, we see the density of the painting mapped out. In this case, the x-radiograph of the painting shows the original inscriptions underneath the overpaint (see figures. 2 and 3). In the x-radiograph, the older donation inscription is quite clear and reads, “In honorable Memorie of this/famous & mor— benefactor/Edm. Blawe major in anno/1622. gave this picture”.

This inscription refers to the mayor of Lincoln in 1621, Edward Blow, but what is less certain is whether the date refers to the paintings making or whether it was added as the date the painting was donated to the City of Lincoln.


These inscriptions give an insight into the function and history of this painting as a publically owned painting. The portrait is in fact mentioned in a Historical Account of Thomas Sutton written by the historian Philip Bearcroft in 1737. He writes: “The Lea∫e of the Par∫onage of Glentham was bequeathed to the Poor of the City of Lincoln out of Regard to his Father(…) And in Gratitude for this Benefaction, there is now in the Publick Hall of the City of Lincoln a whole length Picture of Mr. Sutton, with this in∫cription, Effigies Illu∫t: Thomӕ Sutton Armigeri, given according to the In∫cription, in 1622 by Edward Blawe E∫q; at that Time Mayor, and beatified and refre∫hed in 1710, at the Expence of the Corporation, whole Poor continue to be Fed to this Day out of the Par∫onage of Glentham.”

Despite the reference to the portrait being a full-length, when there is no physical evidence of the painting being cut down, much of what is written by Bearcroft fits in with what has been deciphered of the inscriptions from the technical analysis. The incongruity between the dates for the restoration became clear when looking at the inscription in the x-radiograph, as the year originally read 1710 but has been copied incorrectly to 1750 (see figure 6). This fits with the name of the mayor, as George Kent was the mayor in 1710, rather than Edward Fowler, the mayor in 1750.[4]

Bearcroft thinks that the portrait was given as a response to Sutton’s bequest of the lease of the Glentham parsonage – i.e. as a gift received after his death. This implies that the 1622 date of the portrait’s donation also corresponds to that of its making. In addition, from what we know of Sutton’s life, it seems unlikely that a personal portrait of the man (he only became a public figure after his death) would have ended up in Lincoln, as Sutton had little connection to the city at that period of his life.


In addition to the historical evidence for the painting being a posthumous commission by the mayor of Lincoln in 1622, the dating of the panel using dendrochronology provides compelling evidence for this theory. Dendrochronology (or tree-ring dating) is a dating technique that uses the pattern of ring widths within a sample of timber to determine the calendar period within which the tree grew. The results for this painting gave the earliest felling date of c.1605 for the panel. If time is added onto this date for seasoning and processing of the wood, it becomes highly unlikely that this painting could have been made within Sutton’s lifetime.

This date certainly contradicts the idea that the open book is an indication that this portrait was made to commemorate a specific event in his career (e.g. his leaving office in 1594), or that is was painted while he was still the Master of Ordnance. It seems more likely if we consider this portrait to be a grateful representation of a man expressing the virtues of Christian charity, that it eludes to his more exciting and respectable methods of making his fortune.


Technical analysis has been used in this study to clarify certain aspects of the painting and give weight and further evidence to historical theories about the painting. The clarification of the old inscriptions and the dating of the panel support has given credence to the theory that this painting was made in 1622, after Sutton’s death and rise to fame, and commissioned as a public painting by the mayor of Lincoln to celebrate a Lincolnshire worthy.

Sarah Bayliss, 2nd year Post-Graduate Intern

[1] Neal R. Shipley, “Thomas Sutton: Tudor-Stuart Moneylender,” Business History Review, Vol. L, No. 4 (Winter, 1976): 456-476.

[2] Stephen Porter, The London Charterhouse: A History of Thomas Sutton’s Charity (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2009), 9.

[3] Hugh Trevor-Roper, Thomas Sutton, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 14/10/2016,

[4] It’s All About Lincoln, accessed 18/10/2016,

About the Author

Ms Sarah Bayliss is a graduate of the Post-graduate Diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings at The Courtauld Institute in London. She also has a Master of Chemistry from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK.

To contact Sarah Bayliss:

Madonna and Child, by Pietro da Orvieto

This 14th century Madonna and Child belongs to the Fitzwilliam Museum and is attributed to Pietro da Orvieto (1430-84). The painting came to the Hamilton Kerr Institute conservation studio in preparation for the Museum’s exhibition Madonnas and Miracles, which runs until 4th June 2017.

Condition of the Painting

While the painting was structurally sound, disfiguring and discoloured old retouchings were widespread across the paint surface, most prominent in the necks of the Virgin and Christ. The gilded frame and gilded background also presented a considerable amount of wear and abrasion, revealing the red bole and, in places, the underlying white gesso ground. When looking at the dark blue/black mantle of the Virgin in raking light, it was evident that considerable damage had occurred to this paint passage. The natural resin varnish layer had discoloured and the painting presented a dull greyish tone as the result of surface dirt accumulation and possibly the remains of a glair layer (an egg white varnish). During the treatment of this small painting interesting discoveries were made, such as the beautifully painted reverse, which we will share in this article.

How is the painting made?

This painting has been reconstructed by Anna Don, first year student at the Hamilton Kerr Institute. Her comprehensive step-by-step description includes many impressive photos, offering details that you might otherwise not see.

The support and frame

The painting is on a wooden panel (wood not identified) and is likely to be have been painted using egg tempera and oil glazes, mixed with dry pigments. The reverse of the painting was also painted using egg tempera, but with the exclusion of oil. The background of the painting is gilded, as are some of the details used for the Madonna’s robes. Its integral gilded frame is still present, attached to the front of the panel using nails, as can be seen in the X-radiograph image below. This is a rare find as frames of this type are often discarded having suffered too much damage over time through handling.

X-ray (© Titmus)
X-ray (© Titmus)

Paint layers

A white ground layer, probably of animal glue and gesso (untested) was applied to the back and front of the painting, as well as the frame. The infrared reflectography (IRR) image (see below) revealed the presence of underdrawing in certain areas of the composition, executed in a liquid medium using a brush. Around the figures, it is possible to make out incised lines etched into the gesso to indicate the areas that were to be gilded. The background and haloes are water-gilded in a conventional fashion and display a highly burnished appearance, whilst the decoration of the draperies was done using a mordant gilding technique. The haloes of the two figures were incised with fine circular lines with the use of a compass, while the decorations were made using punch tools.

Infrared (IRR) (© Titmus)

The flesh tones are distinctively Italian in terms of their build-up. The initial modelling was done using a green underpaint layer, known as verdaccio, which is traditionally made using a green earth pigment, as can be seen in the image of the Child below. This was followed by the application of the flesh tones. This layer was applied in fine, repetitive hatched brushstrokes, which is a common feature associated with the use of egg tempera.

The cleaning of the painting was carried out in several stages. The yellowed varnish, which extended from the painting onto the gilded background, as well as the old discoloured retouchings were removed. The upper image shows cleaning tests in the lower left corner, located in the Virgin’s headdress. This instantly made it easier to appreciate the original technique of the painting. It was then possible to remove an additional layer of grey dirt from the gilded background and from the frame mouldings, allowing the beautiful gilded background to shine brightly again.

A sample from the Virgin’s dark blue robe shows a build-up of two paint layers consisting of a greenish blue under layer with a darker, more intense blue upper layer, consisting of coarser pigment particles of azurite.

Sample from the dress, showing coarse azurite particles  (© van Dorst)
Sample from the dress, showing coarse azurite particles (© van Dorst)

The reverse

The painting’s biggest secret was revealed when the reverse was cleaned to uncover a colourful and decorative marble or porphyry imitation scheme, which is framed in a trompe-l’oeil stone moulding. This is a decorative motif commonly found in small scale, early Italian panel painting, but has been observed on a work by Albrecht Dürer. The painting on the reverse was completely obscured by the thick layer of dirt. To facilitate the painting of the straight lines that make up the grey borders, the artist incised the lines in the ground layer. The bright and fantastic colours of the reverse of this small devotional panel can once again be seen and admired.

Varnishing and retouching

It was decided to apply a protective and re-saturating varnish layer only to the painted areas on the front of the painting, but not to the gilded background, the gilded frame or to the reverse of the painting. This approach is in keeping with early Italian painting practice where the gilded areas, especially the water gilding, would have been left unvarnished. However, the painted areas on the front required a varnish layer in order to re-gain their saturation, whilst also providing an isolating layer between the original paint and the subsequent retouching.

After varnishing and filling (© van Dorst)The losses in the painted areas were toned with watercolour and glazed with Gamblin Conservation Colours. In the gilded areas, the losses were toned in a red colour, slightly lighter than the colour of the original bole.

After treatment, front (© Titmus)
After treatment, front (© Titmus)

Conclusion, come and see!

Written by Camille Polkownik and Sarah Bayliss, conservation treatment by Sven van Dorst.

About the author:
Sven Van Dorst graduated magna cum laude at the Artesis University College Antwerp (Belgium) in 2012, majoring in paintings conservation and restoration. The following two years, he worked on several projects at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp and as a freelance conservator and painter. Sven completed a two-year postgraduate internship at the Hamilton Kerr Institute in 2016 and is currently working at The Phoebus Foundation (Belgium) as a conservator and researcher. Recently, he published essays on the technique of Antwerp flower painters in the Hamilton Kerr Bulletin and the Power Flower exhibition catalogue (Rockoxhuis Museum) as well as a piece on the 20th century Belgian artist Gustave van de Woestyne (catalogue: “Rooted, Painting Flanders”). In 2018, Sven will commence the treatment and research of the Dymphna altarpiece by Goswijn van der Weyden.
To contact Sven:


Sir Alfred East RA – Late 19th Century Landscape Painter

Self Portrait (©Kettering Art Gallery)

It is without a doubt that the artist Sir Alfred East (1844-1913), who was inspired by the Barbizon School, enjoyed the interest of the 19th century public.[1] The Times, for instance, referred to him on more than 500 occasions, and printed 11 bulletins describing his fluctuating condition in the month before he died.[2] Amongst various honours on a national and international scale bestowed on him, he was elected president of the Royal Society of British Artists (a post he held from 1906 until his death), received the status of Royal Academician (1913) and was awarded a knighthood by Edward VII (1910), but has since regrettably fallen into obscurity. Despite a slow start to his career, he was commissioned by the Fine Arts Society, to record the landscape of Japan over the course of a year. Subsequent travels he embarked on throughout his career to Europe and America yielded a vast collection of drawings, etchings and paintings in oil and watercolour. Before his death in 1913 East initiated the construction of the Alfred East Art Gallery in Kettering, Northamptonshire, that received a generous amount of his works.

Lake Bourget from Mont Revard, France (255 x 204 cm) before treatment, normal light (©Titmus)

Midland Meadows (162 x 218 cm) before treatment, normal light (©Titmus)

It is from this gallery that two of his paintings, namely Midland Meadows and Lake Bourget from Mont Revard, France, arrived to the Hamilton Kerr Institute for conservation treatment. The discoloured and disfiguring varnish layer on both paintings, was identified  as the main reason for the conservation treatment, although structurally sound, standing as a testament to his sound painting technique. Before the treatment of any painting, it is useful to conduct research about the artist and his painting technique, since it can often give an indication of the materials used by the artist. Nineteenth-century paintings in particular, frequently exhibit experimentation with media and layering that might give an unexpected and inconsistent response to the commonly used solvents for cleaning. Fortunately, in this case, the artist himself was rather keen on sharing his skill of landscape painting and how ‘to get the spirit of’ nature captured in a picture. [3] East wrote and published The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Colour, his own guide to landscape painting, in 1906.[4] This manual explains his painting technique, and even mentions the pigments found on his palette, including the exact tube sizes. Thus it unsurprisingly formed an invaluable source for the treatment of the paintings.  

From his writings it appears that he adopted a well established three-stage-technique that makes use of an under-painting, another layer concerned with the correction of values, and a final stage for the addition of details; all painted with lean oil paint. During this process he practically repainted the entire canvas after the first layer and then proceeded to pick out isolated sections that required further reworking and detail. In doing so, some parts of the second layer that were not reworked in the last stage, and are now part of what is visible in the version we see today. An example of such an area is the fold over edge of Midland Meadows that shows trees reaching higher in the previous layer.

Midland Meadows, detail of first painting stage, normal light (©Straub)

Between the individual layers, East added medium (or binder) to saturate his lean oil paint layers – a process also known as ‘oiling out’. [5] Favoured particularly in the 19th century, this method used a cloth dipped in a medium of choice (- poppy seed oil for East), and rubbed into the dried paint, before the next paint layer followed. Some cross sections of the painting appear to show a layer that might be identified as such, with a characteristic absence of pigment and ultraviolet light quenching that is to be expected (not pictured in this article).  

Lake Bourget left: at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1900; middle: published in East’s The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Colour in 1906; right: the painting in today’s state in ultra violet light (©Straub)

Not only is it possible to see proof of East’s described painting technique in his paintings, but Lake Bourget also reveals a significant compositional change by the artist that must have happened more than six years after it was first exhibited in 1900. Since the painting did not sell during the Royal Academy Exhibition, East may have been inclined to rethink his composition after a critic of his painting found that ‘his trees have had so much of the reality abstracted out of them that they cease to be interesting.’[6] An image of the same painting published in his manual in 1906 shows no changes. The first instance of alterations was registered by the Alfred East Art Gallery in Kettering who received the painting directly from the artist for their opening exhibition in 1913. There is little doubt that East’s reworkings happened before the painting arrived to the Gallery. In ultraviolet light it is also possible to ascertain some of the less visible passages he revisited, since they lie above the oiling out layer and therefore appear darker.

Lake Bourget, sensitive areas marked in yellow, normal light (©Titmus, Straub)

These areas also directly correspond to the passages that exhibited solvent sensitivity during cleaning. East’s described use of lean oil paint suggests that his mixtures were under-bound, meaning the pigment particles were not sufficiently coated with binding medium and therefore friable. Consequently the varnish covering sensitive areas was merely reduced and a thin layer was left in place.

Midland Meadows, during cleaning, normal light (©Straub)

Lake Bourget, during cleaning, normal light (©Straub)

Lake Bourget, detail varnish drip marks, normal light (©Straub)

After surface cleaning the decision to remove the discoloured varnish layer was supported by the fact that it reached into ageing cracks and losses, which means it is less likely that it was applied by the artist. Visually this layer also distracted from the composition with its drip marks in the sky.  In order to remove the varnish, small test areas in different coloured passages, were opened up to establish the best mixture of solvents for cleaning without affecting the paint layers. Usually the sensitivity of a paint layer corresponds to a specific colour or medium used in a passage. However, this was not the case in East’s paintings since the solubility appeared to be caused by underbound final paint dabs of varying colour. After cleaning an isolating synthetic resin varnish was applied, which is less prone to yellowing in the future than its natural counterpart, and the few existing minor losses were filled and retouched. To protect the paintings from vibration and environmental influences a sailcloth stretcher-bar-lining was attached. Moving and lifting such a large scale object, required continuous help from everyone in the studio, and framing was no exception to this. The gilt frame was given a few alterations to house the painting more securely (see the Weston Park in-situ post for more information) before the painting and frame were wrapped and transported back to the Alfred East Art Gallery in Kettering.

Midland Meadows, after treatment, normal light (©Titmus)

Lake Bourget from Mont Revard, France, after treatment, normal light ‎(©Titmus)

During the research for this project it was also possible to catch a glimpse of East’s meticulous character from his artist supplier account with Charles Roberson & Co, a 19th century colourman whose archive is housed at the Hamilton Kerr Institute. When he was sent a selection of brushes from Roberson, East rejected the majority; perhaps because they didn’t meet his standard.[7] He also appears to have repeatedly bought similar items from Roberson, suggesting that he may have had several specific colourman for different types of supplies.

Spending long hours in front of a painting the colours, lines and brushstrokes of the artist become very familiar. This direct contact with the painting was only furthered by the information that was gained about this artist and his technique, and made the treatment all the more interesting. Do visit the Alfred East Art Gallery in Kettering to see the actual paintings in their original exhibition space (due to their changing exhibitions it is best to inquire before a visit if the paintings are currently on display).

Michaela Straub, 3rd year Student


[1] and

[2]J Paul & M Kenneth, Alfred East Lyrical Landscape Painter, Bristol, 2009.

[3] J Paul & M Kenneth, p. 25.

[4] A East, The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Colour, London, 1906. Further publications after his death include: E Bale & A East, Brush and Pencil Notes in Lanscape, London, 1914.; A East, H Cortazzi & Japan Society (London), A British Artist in Meiji Japan, Brighton, 1991.

[5] Oiling out is mentioned by several other artists such as George Frederic Watts in Watts, M. S. 1912. George Frederick Watts, London;  Gilman Harold (a new way of working that doesn’t involve oiling out); Lord Leighton (in a letter to Prof. Church he writes about using rectified petroleum instead of the normal process of oiling out) and is mentioned Leighton’s Painting process forms from the Royal Academy noting that for Daphnephoria he used Roberson’s medium for ‘rubbing in’.

[6]The Spectator no. 3750, 12 MAY 1900, p. 18

[7]Roberson Archive: MS 121-1993, p. 197; MS 313-1993, p. 88.

About the Author:

Currently in her third year studying easel painting conservation at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, Michaela Straub graduated from Aberystwyth University with a BA in Fine Art and Art History in 2012. She has undertaken internships in private studio’s, the Denkmalschutzamt in Germany and the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna.

To contact Michaela Straub:

Examination of an ancient Egyptian inlaid eye

For more stories from other conservation departments at the Fitzwilliam Museum, visit the Conservation and Collections Care blog!

This post was written last year by Alexandra Zappa, a former objects conservation intern in the Department of Antiquities. Alex graduated from UCL with an MSc in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums in 2012 and is currently working as a conservator in the United States.

One of the projects I was involved with since the beginning of my internship is the technical examination of a group of Ancient Egyptian inlaid eyes. The Ancient Egyptians used inlaid eyes in a variety of objects including statues, coffin masks, anthropoid coffins, in rectangular coffins and inlaid into the eyes of mummies.

Alex Zappa examining an inlaid ancient Egyptian eye under the microscope
Alex Zappa examining an inlaid ancient Egyptian eye under the microscope

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