An aristocratic lady from the 17th century who was considered quite beautiful seems to have fallen from favour after she died, as someone had applied an “Instagram” filter to the painting to enhance her looks.
Now, the painting is going on display in north London, with her original appearance restored.
The painting of Diana Cecil, the great-granddaughter of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, one of Elizabeth I’s closest advisors, has recently undergone restoration work, and they have revealed her original appearance once again.
Diana Cecil (1596–1654), an aristocrat, lived through the upheaval of the English Civil War, and the early years of the Republic, and three paintings of her are known to exist — by William Larkin, Paul van Somer, Anthony van Dyck — and by Cornelius Johnson.
It’s Johnson’s portrait, made in 1634, that had the later touches added to it.
While the painting had at some point been rolled widthways, which caused significant damage and may have resulted in the need for a touch-up, the overpainting of these features, possibly to make her more fashionable for the tastes of the time, is a strange choice.
It’s also a mystery as to who made the changes.
English Heritage experts have now removed the yellowing layer of old varnish to reveal Diana’s true colours and her lips and hair as they were originally painted.
Alice Tate-Harte, Collections Conservator (Fine Art) at English Heritage, said: “As a paintings conservator I am often amazed by the vivid and rich colours that reveal themselves as I remove old, yellowing varnish from portraits, but finding out Diana’s features had been changed so much was certainly a surprise! While the original reason for overpainting could have been to cover damage from the portrait being rolled, the restorer certainly added their own preferences to ‘sweeten’ her face. I hope I’ve done Diana justice by removing those additions and presenting her natural face to the world.”
In removing the varnish, another remarkable discovery was made, hidden in the painting’s curtain – the date of the portrait was uncovered as 1634 (previously thought to be 1638) as well as the artist’s signature.
The newly conserved painting of Diana Cecil will go on display – next to its pair, a portrait of her husband, Thomas Bruce, the 1st Earl of Elgin – at Kenwood House in north London on Thursday 30th November.