Two paintings, nearly 250 years old and almost identical in content, are set to be displayed together for the first time in an exhibition at the National Trust Wallington property, Northumberland.
The paintings of Susanna ‘Suky’ Trevelyan and Charlotte Walpole, the Countess of Dysart, show both ladies in identical poses wearing fairytale white and gold satin dresses with cascading ringlets. But questions still remain as to how they came to be so similar.
The portrait of Suky, which hangs in the house at the National Trust’s Wallington in Northumberland, was originally painted by Thomas Gainsborough in 1761.
Last year the Trust revealed that Trevelyan family rumours that the original portrait had been over-painted were in fact true.
Painted by Gainsborough
The painting by Gainsborough was the subject of extensive re-working with approximately 80% of the original portrait having undergone change.
It is not known yet whether the adaptations to the painting were of the brush of Sir Joshua Reynolds, or more likely by one of the artists working for Reynolds at the time. But there is no doubt that Reynolds directed the change as the dress in a portrait by the artist of Charlotte Walpole, painted in 1775, which usually hangs in the Trust’s Ham House in Richmond upon Thames, is almost identical to the one of Suky.
‘Not just a rumour’
Lloyd Langley, House and Collections Manager for the National Trust at Wallington said: “It is extraordinary that we have in our collection a painting potentially by not one, but two, of England’s greatest artists, which is unusual and of great interest.
“Last year we were delighted to be able to prove scientifically that the over-painting of Suky was not just a rumour.
“To be able to display this painting for the first time alongside the almost identical painting of Charlotte Walpole, and to share the story of this discovery with our visitors is fantastic.[pullquote]We were told last year that up to 80% of the Suky painting was re-worked but now we know a lot more about what was in the originally picture.
Lloyd Lagley – NT[/pullquote]
The exhibition A Tale of two Dresses will not only display the paintings side by side but will reveal the scientific work of Nicola Grimaldi of the Conservation Department of Northumbria University and show just what it was in Suky’s portrait that was over-painted.
Lloyd Langley continued:“ We were told last year that up to 80% of the Suky painting was re-worked but now we know a lot more about what was in the originally picture.
“X-rays show that she was in fact wearing a hat and a Van Dyke style blue dress with extravagant ruffles, and, that she was holding a little white dog, similar to those in other paintings we have at Wallington commissioned by Sir Walter Calverly Blackett, Suky’s uncle.”
The Trevelyan family story goes that the changes to the original portrait of Suky were made following a dismissive comment by the influential 18th Century social commentator and agriculturist, Arthur Young, who referred to the work as “a painting of hat and ruffles,” on a visit to Wallington sometime between 1768-1770.
Young’s throwaway remark is said to have greatly irritated Sir Walter Blackett, who asked his friend Reynolds to work his own magic on the picture.
The exhibition A Tale of Two Dresses will be on display at Wallington from Saturday 28 April to Sunday 1 July.
The house is open daily except Tuesdays from 12noon to 5pm, last entry 4.00pm.
After the 1 July the exhibition will move to the Trust’s Ham House in Richmond upon Thames.