Gainsborough painting hides secret at Wallington Hall, Northumberland

PUBLISHED: 14:40 04 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:08 20 February 2013

Gainsborough painting hides secret at Wallington Hall, Northumberland

Gainsborough painting hides secret at Wallington Hall, Northumberland

A priceless Gainsborough hanging at Wallington in Northumberland, was dramatically over-painted by rival Sir Joshua Reynolds. Words by Jane Hall Pictures courtesy of the National Trust/Barry Pells and Nicky Grimaldi

A priceless Gainsborough hanging at Wallington in Northumberland, was dramatically over-painted by rival Sir Joshua Reynolds. And changing tastes in fashion and aristocratic vanity may well lie at the root of the story

Fashion and keeping up with the Joneses isnt just a 21st century
pre-occupation. Our 18th century forbears were equally snobbish when it
came to looking good and portraying the right image both in person and at home.

One snide aside would have rankled just as much 250 years ago as it does now.

Most people faced with a cutting remark about their fashion sense would banish the offending item to the back of their wardrobe. Or in the case of a picture or piece of furniture lock it in the attic and forget about it.

Not Sir Walter Calverley Blackett. When the 18th century social commentator and agriculturist Arthur Young visited the aristocrats magnificent Palladian mansion at Wallington in Northumberland in the late 1760s and dismissively described a portrait of Susannah Suky Trevelyan as a painting of hat and ruffles, Sir Walter didnt remove it to the basement.

On the contrary, he did what any titled and wealthy gentleman of the day would have done when an image of their favourite niece was held up to ridicule: he had it reworked. Except, the original artist was no ordinary run-of-the-mill journeyman. He was Gainsborough, one of the most celebrated painters of his day.

And the man Sir Walter hired to over-paint what he now obviously regarded as an offensive tribute to Suky was fellow knight of the realm, Joshua Reynolds.

Trevelyan family legend had for generations claimed that the specially commissioned Gainsborough portrait which still hangs at Wallington had been titivated by his artistic rival.

Unconvinced, National Trust staff at the property at Cambo decided 18 months ago to put the story to the test and sent Sukys portrait off to Northumbria Universitys School of Art and Social Sciences to be examined.

Cutting edge scientific techniques and good old-fashioned detective work on the part of Nicky Grimaldi, senior lecturer in conservation and fine art at Northumbria, has revealed the centuries-old myth to be true.

But rather than just the hat and ruffles described by Young being obliterated from view, Nicky has discovered that 80 per cent of the painting has been reworked, leaving just Sukys face and the background untouched.

Whats more, further research has shown that far from being a Reynolds original, it is actually an almost exact copy of another of his masterpieces, that of Charlotte Walpole, the countess of Dysart, which hangs in fellow National Trust property, Ham House near Richmond.

No-one knows if either party was aware that Reynolds had doubled up on the paintings. But in an age where wealth and social standing were all-important, it can be assumed to have a pair of similar paintings hanging in grand country houses would be the 18th century equivalent of two female celebrities walking up the red carpet in the same designer evening dress today.

But it is dresses that the Gainsborough/Reynolds mystery appears to be all about.

X-rays and infra-red imaging has shown Suky in Gainsboroughs original to be wearing a huge portrait hat with an under cap trimmed with pearls teamed with a voluminous ruffled and flounced silk dress in ultramarine.
It is the epitome of the stylised image of the period portrayed by the now defunct British movie studio, Gainsborough Pictures, in their logo, showing a woman in a large feathered hat and beribboned 18th century dress sitting smiling inside an ornate gilt frame.

But Sukys likeness couldnt be more different in Reynolds version. Instead she is represented as a vivacious young woman dressed goddess-like in a fairytale white and gold satin dress, her now-uncovered dark hair cascading in ringlets past her shoulders.

Its a dramatic change of tack. But one that perhaps illustrates how quickly tastes and styles can change.

Nicky says it was not unusual for pictures to be tweaked at this time as fashions moved on - although she admits even she is stunned by the extent of the reworking in Sukys case.

There is virtually nothing of Gainsboroughs original painting left to see. It is only the background and Susannas face that has remained as Gainsborough envisaged.

Lloyd Langley, Wallingtons house and collections manager, said: The portrait of Susannah Trevelyan was already of great significance, but to have a piece of art in an English country house that can lay claim to be the work of two of the nations greatest painters is extraordinary.

Back now where she belongs at Wallington, the public can decide for themselves which version of her they prefer. A presentation telling Sukys story and featuring the X-rays, infra-red images and other details of Gainsboroughs original painting has opened.

Wallington, Cambo, Morpeth, Northumberland 01670 773600

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