Rhagor - Opening our national collections

Discovering the secrets beneath - 18th century paintings under the microscope

[image: Richard Wilson (1714-1782)]

Richard Wilson (1714-1782)

[image: Caernarvon Castle X-ray image ]

Caernarvon Castle X-ray image (NMW A 73)

[image: Caernarvon Castle by Richard Wilson]

Caernarvon Castle by Richard Wilson

[image: Dolbadarn Castle X-ray image ]

Dolbadarn Castle X-ray image (NMW A 72)

[image: Dolbadarn Castle in I.R. light ]

Dolbadarn Castle in I.R. light (NMW A 5203)

Over the past few years, the Museum has been examining a number of paintings in the collections by Richard Wilson. Modern scientific equipment can reveal hidden details about the structure and materials used in these paintings. The results provide a fascinating insight into the artist's working methods and have led to discovering the origin of some of the more doubtful paintings from Wilson's work.

Infra-Red Light

Infra-red light has been used to see whether the paintings have subsequently been altered or painted over by the artist. Infra-red light can penetrate all but the deepest blue pigments to reveal any dark tones overlying a light coloured ground. It has been discovered that there are underdrawings in both the oil sketch of Dolbadarn Castle (NMW A 5203) and the large finished painting of the same subject (NMW A 72). In the oil sketch, the underdrawing includes a bridge across the river in the distance and a fence in the right foreground. Neither of these features were used in the final sketch. Furthermore in the large painted version Mount Snowdon is included in the background and the distant riverside buildings are moved further to the left. His ability to rework his designs brings variety to the many versions he painted of the same subjects and helps explain how he gives his English and Welsh views a grand classical appearance.

Paint Structure and Materials

Subjecting Wilson's work to X-rays has enabled the structure of Wilson's paintings to be examined. X-rays easily penetrate some materials, but are reflected by others. Some pigments traditionally used in oil painting come from heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead. Lead white being one of the most commonly used. X-rays show up the structure of the painting and any changes that may have been made using lead white. Wilson usually painted his skies in a mixture of lead white and a blue pigment only down as far as the horizon, skirting around any trees and foliage silhouetted against the sky. The foreground and trees are painted largely with earth colours, which X-rays easily penetrate. A typical X-ray of a painting by Wilson should show a strong contrast between sky and foreground areas. This is best illustrated by Caernarfon Castle (NMW A 73). Any landscape not showing this characteristic contrast therefore can be assumed to have been produced by someone other than Wilson.

A few of the paintings examined so far show that Wilson sometimes completely reworked a composition. Dinas Bran (NMW A 3277) was originally started as a View of Tivoli (see NMW A 495). The town on the slopes of the hill is clearly visible in X-ray together with a wayside shrine, which occurs in other versions of that subject. He also occasionally reused a canvas. Dolbadarn Castle (NMW A 72) has been painted over a portrait of a woman, and Landscape with Banditti around a Tent (NMW A 69) is painted over a Venetian-style reclining nude.

Powerful microscopes

Tiny paint samples have been taken and looked at under incredibly powerful microscopes.

The pigments found in the paint layers almost exactly match the palette Wilson used. Prussian blue and indigo mixed with lead white are the chief pigments found in his skies, and ochre, Naples yellow, red and yellow lakes, Prussian blue and indigo in his foliage and foregrounds. Ultramarine blue however, which, according to contemporary accounts, Wilson used in finishing his skies, has not yet been found.

Proving Fakes

Although most of Wilson's close followers would have used a very similar palette to that of their master, this type of modern analysis has proved that later imitations were false as the pictures contained pigments that were not known in Wilson's day. These include NMW A 5195 Coast Scene near Naples, which contains cobalt blue, first introduced in 1817 and NMW A 5206 Cilgerran Castle which has a ground containing barytes, introduced at the end of the 18th century.

This research has produced information vital to a deeper historical understanding of individual works by Wilson, as well as some definite conclusions as to the status of paintings of doubtful origin.

Article Date: 30 April 2007


Kyon & Itsuki Koizami on 10 September 2009, 09:33

Cool website. I'm really interested in these types of websites. Maybe you could open up a science section if you want? Please do open a science section, I really love science. My name's Itsuki, and me and my twin brother Kyon Love science.

Fei Dansen& Otta Dansen on 10 September 2009, 09:32

its nice website

Kandy Price on 3 April 2009, 10:02

Thanks for this information. It is so interesting I would love to learn more.

Thanks again for sharing.

Robert on 3 November 2008, 12:14

I came upon this site of yours while browsing, and would be interested to hear if you know anything about the artist Muschamp.
There is a large oil by him of Snowdon that has been handed down through our family. It is a view from below, with the peak showing through trees across a shallow wooded stream.
The painting may have been purchased at one of the Great Exhibitions, maybe in 1881? as we know an ancestor exhibited at at least one.
Most of these details have been lost over time, and it would be interesting to piece together what we can.

With Thanks and Best Wishes

Robert Langlands. Melbourne, Australia.

P.S. I am aware there were two Muschamps - father and son; and both were RA; but there is not much information available about them.

Art Department on 3 November 2008, 12:14 (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales Staff)

Dear Robert - thank you for your comment - unfortunately , we do not hold works by either Muschamp in National Collection.

Francis Muschamp (exhibiting between 1865-1881) is the more likely artist of the work as he was a landscape painter who painted in North Wales.

Sydney Muschamp (exhibiting between 1870-1903) painted genre, historical and mythiological works similar to those of Alma Tadema.

This is the only information I could find in our reference books and files.

Hope it helps, thank you for your interest in Amgueddfa Cymru.

Ken Hall on 3 November 2008, 12:14

Hello - I am currently writing about a c.1715 portrait by Godfrey Kneller in our collection, and have (perhaps an odd) request that I am hoping you can help me with. Would you have any advice on where I can find a list of all the pigments or colours that were in use at that time? I'm hoping to include this with something I want to publish. Many thanks, Ken

Ken Hall, Assistant Curator, Christchurch Art Gallery, New Zealand

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