An unfinished portrait of a woman believed to be Mary, Queen of Scots has been found hidden beneath another 16th-century portrait during a significant research project recently conducted at the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) and The Courtauld Institute of Art.
The portrait was one of a number of works by the portrait painters Adrian Vanson and Adam de Colone, two Netherlandish artists who worked in Scotland at the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th century, to be examined by conservator Dr Caroline Rae, The Courtauld’s Caroline Villers Research Fellow, who recently undertook a collaborative research project in conjunction with NGS. The discovery took place while Dr Rae was examining works from the NGS collection during her research; Vanson’s portrait of Sir John Maitland (1589), the Lord Chancellor of Scotland, is part of the National Trust collection and usually hangs at the Trust’s 17th century historic property Ham House, near London.
Dr Rae discovered the concealed portrait while conducting a technical examination using X-radiography (X-ray), a technique that can penetrate through paint layers but which is stopped by pigments containing heavy metals such as lead white (a white pigment that was commonly used throughout Europe at the time). The X-radiograph revealed the presence of lead white depicting a woman’s face and the outline of her dress and hat beneath the upper layers of paint.
Dr Caroline Rae said: “Technical examination of works of art, in conjunction with art historical and documentary research, forms the pillars of technical art history. Using technical art history, it is possible to illuminate artists’ materials and techniques for the first time in centuries, to discern copies and forgeries and to explore questions of authorship and workshop practice. The discovery of this hidden portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots is an exciting revelation, not only as it adds to our knowledge of 16th century Marian portraiture and patterns of commission at the time, but as it aids in illuminating our understanding of Adrian Vanson, a Netherlandish émigré artist who came to Jacobean Scotland to seek a new life and quickly ascended to the status of Crown painter.”
The results of this collaborative research project, which set out to explore the respective artistic techniques of Vanson and de Colone, will be revealed in a new display which opens at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this week.