The Bodleian Library – Portrait Conservation Project

The Bodleian Library has a remarkable portraits collection, representing unique visual stories of the history of the Libraries and the University of Oxford. “Portrait of an Unknown Lady” urgently required conservation in order to secure it for future generations.  The Radcliffe Trust awarded the library a grant for this wonderful project.

The grant was spent employing the services of specialist conservator Dr Harriet Standeven to conserve the portrait. The current portrait of an unknown woman was revealed in 1838, when an overpainted image of Mary Queen of Scots was removed. At that time a thick, natural resin varnish was applied, and it is likely that the fixed strainer on the reverse of the panel was also adhered. The panel exhibited both structural and aesthetic problems and the aim of the treatment was to stabilise it and improve its appearance, making it available for future study.

The cracked panel was re-glued, a non-yellowing synthetic resin varnish was applied, losses to the paint layer and small gaps in the panel were filled with pigmented wax/resin, and the extensive losses retouched; all these materials are non-yellowing and easily removed should it be required in the future.

The panel will now go to a specialist framer and will be fitted in a bespoke frame: this will support the panel whilst allowing it to respond to fluctuations in temperature and humidity. No additional supporting structure will be added to the reverse of the panel.

The Bodleian Library have been able to ensure the long-term future of this portrait and enable visitors and scholars to view it safely and without risk of further deterioration. Without the contribution from The Radcliffe Trust they would not have been able to achieve this.