X-ray revelations at the NPG

January 6 2013

Image of X-ray revelations at the NPG

Picture: NPG

A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, shows the interesting results of recent technical analysis of the Gallery's 16th Century portraits. As The Guardian explains, a portrait of Francis Walsingham was found to be painted on top of a religious painting:

He was the eyes and ears of Elizabeth I, the loyal spymaster and ruthless counterterror chief: Sir Francis Walsingham was the man who knew everything. Or not quite everything, it seems. Certainly not that his portrait was secretly painted over an overtly Roman Catholic image of the holy Virgin and Child.

“He would not have been delighted,” speculated Dr Tarnya Cooper, standing in front of the remarkable new discovery going on show at the National Portrait Gallery. “You do wonder if the artist might be enjoying a private joke."

The gallery on Thursday opened a display showing x-rays of devotional paintings it has discovered underneath its portraits of two key Tudor statesmen. As well as a Virgin and Child under Walsingham, researchers found A Flagellation of Christ under the Queen’s lord treasurer Thomas Sackville.

The Walsingham portrait dates from the 1580s when Protestant England was isolated and supporting the war in the Netherlands against the Spanish.

“The Catholics are the absolute enemy at this period so the idea that you’ve got this wonderful devotional image underneath your portrait would probably be rather horrifying to him,” Cooper, the NPG’s chief curator, said.

It was a surprise finding. “There is not very much that Walsingham does not know about of what’s going on in courts across Europe, he has a huge network of informers, is an incredibly wily man and is someone with a public reputation. For somebody who is not wonderfully keen on Walsingham this would be a clever way of getting at him."

The NPG believes it cannot be accidental that after x-raying more than 120 Tudor portraits and mostly finding nothing, it found an image so emblematic of Roman Catholicism under Walsingham. “It is intriguing that it is under the spymaster-general,” said Cooper.

I suspect the answer is a little less sensational - after the Reformation, England must have been awash with unwanted religious imagery, much of which was good quality and painted on expensive oak panels. It would seem logical to accept that some of these panels were re-used by artists, particularly when making replicas of original portraits, as is the case with the NPG's Walsingham. We recently had a similar case here at Philip Mould & Co., with our late 16th Century portrait of the young James VI of Scotland painted on top of a painting of a saint. There, even the original integral frame had been re-used. 

Update - a reader writes:

Fascinating.  Although I tend to think you are right to take the practical view of painters re-using panels no longer wanted in order to make their work easier and probably cheaper, it also seems to me -- contrary to the experts you quote -- that Walsingham would very much have approved of painting his portrait on top of a 'heretical' (in his view) Catholic artwork: how better to demonstrate the Elizabethan triumph over 'popery' and the Catholic dissidents whom Walsingham opposed and spied on!!??

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