All that glitters is not gold: technical examination of jewellery and gold brocade in a royal portrait attributed to Adrian Vanson

This next heritage science contribution to British Science Week 2017 comes from the Dr Caroline Rae at National Galleries Scotland and highlights some of the technical examination techniques that can be used to address questions about workshop practice and authorship of paintings.

Microscopy allows comparative examination of minute details of brushwork not normally visible to the naked eye. Examination of minute samples of paint can inform conservators about pigments, preparatory layers and paint layers. Dr Caroline Rae describes how these analytical techniques have illuminated the different materials and techniques used to create the illusion of jewellery and highly expensive cloth worked with golden thread on a portrait of James VI.

Great care has been taken to depict the gold brocade and the doublet worn by the king. Examination in microscopy suggests that at least three hands were at work in creating this painting. The looser, more confident style used to create the sitter’s face and cloak contrast with the more systematic techniques used to paint the hat-band and doublet. This is not unusual – it was common for artists in Europe at the time to have up to four studio assistants.

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Attributed to Adrian Vanson., James VI, 1595, oil on panel, National Galleries of Scotland (PG 156) 72.90 x 62.30 cm

The artist who painted the doublet has very precisely painted in each individual thread using neat yellow strokes, as revealed in the photomicrograph.

16_NGS_2 PG 156_0013 doublet and belt alt.jpg
Vanson, James VI, photomicrograph (brushwork on the doublet and belt worn by the king)

In the paint sample taken from this area, it can be seen that lead-tin yellow pigment has been used to create the illusion of glimmering golden threads (this layer overlies a pale base coat for the doublet, a traditional chalk ground layer and a thin coloured priming layer which were used to prepare the panel support for painting). Additional decoration has been added in the form of red dashes, comprised red lake and vermillion.

16_NGS_3 PG 156 sample 2.jpg
Vanson, James VI, paint sample taken from the doublet, area of red/ golden brocade decoration

The artist’s technique has a laborious quality although the precise and stiff three-dimensional strokes are successfully mimetic in appearance. A different hand appears to have been at work in the creation of the jewelled hat-band. This artist combines precise, deft strokes with a freer application of paint, as revealed in the photomicrograph taken from this area.

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Vanson, James VI, photomicrograph (brushwork on the jewelled hat band worn by the king).

Monogrammed jewellery was popular throughout the sixteenth century, but reached its zenith during James’s reign when jewelled letters emblazoned with diamonds and rubies became the height of fashion at court, adorning garters, hat bands and brooches. The letter ‘A’ in James’s hat-band refers to his recent marriage to Anne of Denmark. The care taken to carefully represent these details in the painting reflects their importance within the composition in displaying the status of the king.

Caroline is the holder of the Caroline Villers Research Fellowship this year which is jointly hosted by the Courtauld Institute of Art and the National Galleries of Scotland. Caroline’s research focuses on the examination of portraits from the NGS collection attributed to Adrian Vanson and Adam de Colone, two Netherlandish artists who lived and worked in Scotland during the Jacobean period. Caroline is using well-established methods of technical examination, including microscopy and sampling, to examine questions of workshop practice and authorship in relation to both artists and to help build a better picture of workshop practice in Scotland. Click here for more information.

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