Identifying Lauder’s pigments using XRF

The latest blog post in our British Science Week 2020 series is written by Clara Gonzalez, a post graduate student studying for an MLitt in Technical Art History at the University of Glasgow. She is currently doing a work placement with the Conservation Department of the National Galleries of Scotland.

The National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) and the Technical Art History Group, Glasgow University (TAHG) are working together on a systematic technical study of Christ Teacheth Humility by Robert Scott Lauder (1803-1869).

In 1847, Lauder submitted this painting to a competition organised to provide works of art for the Houses of Parliament. Lauder did not win, but the painting gained him public recognition. In 1849 it was acquired by NGS, becoming part of the early foundation of the collection.

The vivid palette used in the painting reveals Lauder’s interest in the effects of colour, inspired by Venetian 16th century painters such as Titian. At the time Lauder was working, traditional pigments were still in use, and artists experimented with pigments made from newly discovered compounds which were also commercially available.

A well-established analytical method for  the technical examination of paintings (specifically the identification of inorganic components of artists’ materials) is X-ray fluorescence (XRF). XRF is a non-destructive, non-invasive analytical tool. The TAHG XRF analyser is a portable, handheld Niton XL3t. This portability is particularly suitable for examination of this work due to its dimensions (2.5 x 3.7m) and offsite location in the gallery store. Using XRF, we will characterise inorganic elements present. In combination with other techniques (such as paint sampling) this analysis will be used to build a holistic picture of materials used, including pigments, and to gain an understanding of Lauder’s material choices for this painting, the most ambitious project of his career.

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XRF analyser during analysis 1.
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XRF analyser during analysis 2.
Person examining a small scanner mounted on a tripod, in front of a large painting.
Examining the XRF analyser in front of the painting.

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