Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Restoration Project

Last year my father let me have a small portrait (oil on board) of a mystery woman painted by my great grandfather (Francis Swithin Anderton). It had suffered some water damage after a boiler malfunction, had lost its frame, and was generally in need of some love. I found a restorer, delivered it up, kept my fingers crossed, and was really pleased with the eventual result.
The first picture

The current project, after and before.

This year he let me have another portrait, this time I'm fairly sure (it looks like her) the sitter was my great grandmother, who for reasons now lost, is dressed as a nun. The history of this picture is also a bit of a mystery. As far as I know it had been in a house that belonged to his (Francis') sister and her husband. The house stayed in the family until the 1970's but was rented out complete with its late Victorian/Edwardian fixtures and fittings. When it was sold, complete with furnishings, it was stripped out. Dad managed to get the painting, but not the frame and for the next 40 odd years it kicked around in odd corners, and finally in a shed. At some time it too seems to have suffered from damp, so when I got it in January it was very much in need of some love.

Off she went to the restorer (if anybody ever wants a recommendation for someone good with oil paintings in Rutland I'd be happy to pass on her details). The moment the picture is returned is thoroughly exciting because you finally get to assess what it is you have. This painting (oil on canvas) turned out to be a sketch rather than a finished work. This is clear from the vague nature of the background and a general lack of detail anywhere but the face. The natural darkening of the paint over the years doesn't help here either, the water damage revealed more of the brushwork on her sleeves than is now discernible.

I have no idea if anything further came of the idea that was being worked on, but it wasn't signed. I'm a bit surprised by this, most other things of his I've seen are signed, and as I assume this was a gift to his sister, and that someone had gone to the trouble of framing and hanging it, it was clearly liked enough to be seen as suitably finished for display.

There's no evidence the canvas has been cut down (with the loss of the signature) but at some point it had been taken off its stretcher, moved about an inch to the left and tacked back down. This moved the figure closer to the centre of the image, but left a chunk of unpainted canvas which added to the challenge of framing.

Finding a frame really has been a challenge. Dad remembered her in something quite ornate and gold.  I could see that working, but finding something suitable would be (very) expensive, it would also be hard to fit in with the rest of my flat. In the end after 3 visits to the framers (they're very patient) and a lot of changing my mind I settled for something quite plain. I'm really pleased with the result, it feels right both for the painting and it's current surroundings, but I'm still open to other possibilities. I think of the frame as an outfit, and see no reason not to change it if I ever find something I think will suit her better, or if her surroundings change sufficiently to demand a rethink.

Meanwhile this particular labour of love is at an end, and I get to enjoy the results. The painting's value is basically sentimental, but she has a charm that grows on you the more time you spend with her. The whole process has cost about £360 which doesn't seem unreasonable to pay to rescue a peice of family history (though it does make me hope my washing machine doesn't follow through on its occasional threat to give up the ghost any time soon). The rest of my evening will be spent rearranging pictures whilst I try and find her the right bit of wall to sit on.


  1. They are lovely and you'll enjoy them for a LONG time. What a wonderful link to family history.

    1. I will, and then someone after me shall get the same pleasure, which is a nice thought.

  2. I remember when you posted on this before, and I'm so glad to see the follow-up! Also you inspire me to see about restoring a lovely painting of Peter's grandmother, that has a nasty rip in it. (I'll show you on Facebook!)

    1. Do it! The picture you have is charming, and the whole process is really rewarding. I keep playing with the idea of trying to do a serious bit of work around Francis Swithin, starting with tracking down any pictures in the extended family, none of whom I know, and seeing if I can get more than the bare details of his life together. It's complicated by the fact that he died, quite young, in 1909, whilst his wife was pregnant with my grandfather. She died around 1926 from cancer, and the great aunts (who would still have been to young to really remember him) are gone as well. If I ever get the time...