The act of restoring an important and aged oil painting can sometimes be as much a detective story as an act of conservation.
That’s the case with an early Victorian portrait currently awaiting restoration in the archives below the Ballarat Art Gallery.
The gallery already held a portrait of the early pioneer brewer John Henderson – a picture that once had been attributed to the now-renowned portraitist Robert Dowling. It had been restored about 30 years ago and placed in a frame that was then thought to be appropriate to the period.
But a recent acquisition – one that poses an entirely new set of questions of its own as well – at least seems to have done away with the frame dilemma.
A portrait of Elizabeth Henderson (nee Hogg), the wife of Mr Henderson, was purchased by the gallery following the break up of an historic estate near Ballarat.
Stored ever since and awaiting repair, when it is placed alongside its putative partner it poses some contentious issues.
“There’s absolutely no question in my mind that that's the original frame for that painting,” says Art Gallery of Ballarat director Gordon Morrison, of the Hobb portrait.
“I suspect that when (the portrait of John Henderson) was purchased it had no frame at all. And the director at the time made a decision to go for a replica of a particular style of Colonial frame. He went for the very simple type of frame that's commonly used for sporting prints and the like. It's a style that definitely belongs to the 1840s, but it's the absolute opposite to the style of the painting that we've recently acquired.”
Mr Morrison says the ornate timber, plaster and gilt frame is in relatively good condition, requiring ‘about $2,000’ in repairs and restoration to bring it up to exhibition quality.
“I call this a stock-standard, reasonably high-class portrait frame of the early Nineteenth Century.
“In the Eighteenth, Seventeenth Century where only the aristocracy had their portraits done, every part of that frame would have been hand-carved, and you'd be talking in terms of the frame itself being a magnificent work of art.
Solving the uncertainty of the correct frame was a relatively straightforward piece of sleuthing for the gallery’s experts. Next week we look at an altogether more vexed question: are these portraits an actual pair?
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