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Marianne North's hidden inscriptions

Helen Cowdy
8 November 2010
Kew's Conservation Team have found all sorts of amazing discoveries beneath the skin of Marianne North's paintings.

As we are conserving Marianne North's paintings (see my previous post), we are discovering some really exciting clues which provide information about how Marianne North worked, the conditions she worked in and the materials she used.

Predominantly Marianne North sketched in ink before applying oil paint. Evidence of this has been uncovered on the backing boards and the backs of the paintings themselves. Most of the inscriptions we find are in either ink or pencil and relate to place and plant names. However sometimes we find whole sketches!

This ink sketch was found on the back of painting number 8 and is a preparatory sketch for painting number 19. The sketch shows that Marianne North wrote notes about the colours whilst sketching, suggesting that she completed the actual painting at a later stage.



Back of painting number 8                               Front of painting number 19

The sketch below is one I have recently uncovered during backing removal. The painting on the front is totally different, and I haven’t been able to match the sketch to anything in the gallery – any keen eyed suggestions are welcome!


Back of painting number 287

Some of the sketches and inscriptions are on the back of the very boards we are removing. A few of these we have been extremely lucky with, as they have come away in a single layer or detached from the painting relatively easily. Others have required more interventive processes, to separate the board layers without losing original historical information. There are even a few paintings with inscriptions and labels adhered between the paper and the board. These can be extremely difficult to remove intact but is a challenge that we enjoy and have proved successful at!

A label and some ink text adhered between the board and the paper

A label and some ink text on the back of a board

Everything we do during the treatment of the paintings is documented and photographed. The hidden finds are digitised so they can be used as part of the interactive displays in the gallery when it is officially re-opened.

Sketches and inscriptions are not our only hidden finds. Some only become apparent when viewed through a microscope, for example fibres from clothing, hairs from brushes and from Marianne North, we have even found seed cases and pieces of insects, but that is another post altogether!

- Helen -


Further information

The Marianne North Conservation team give free demonstrations on the project and Marianne North once a month. The gallery itself is currently closed while the original paintings are re-hung and some minor work is carried out on the building. The next talk will be on the 26 November, 2.30pm, in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery.

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