The Silver Swan [x.4653]
In 2008 the Museum’s iconic silver swan musical automaton underwent a major conservation project. Horologist Matthew Read and a team of specialists which included staff from the conservation team, took the swan apart, recording and assessing every individual piece. To find out more about this fascinating project, see a week by week review.


The Silver Swan undergoes conservation

The Last Communion of Saint Peter Nolasco by Francisco Pacheco [B.M.1007]

The Last Communion of Saint Peter Nolasco by Francisco Pacheco came to The Bowes Museum in 1964. It was donated to enhance the Museum’s already important collection of Spanish paintings. The painting is dated 1611, and is part of a series of six paintings executed by Francisco Pacheco (1564-1654) for the Mercedarian convent of Seville. In 1600, Pacheco and Alonso Vázquez were commissioned to decorate the large cloister of the convent with a series of pictures representing the lives of the founders of the order, Saint Peter Nolasco and Saint Raymond Nonnatus. In this painting Saint Peter, supported by angels, kneels by his bed to receive his last communion from Christ. The scene is illuminated by the candles held by a group of Mercedarian monks.

The painting entered the Museum in poor condition, and remained in the Museum’s picture store until 2000, having never been displayed to the public. When Adrian Jenkins joined the Museum as Director, he instigated a programme of research and conservation. In 2005, the painting travelled to the National Gallery in London to be relined. The painting has extensive areas of paint loss and abraded paint which required filling and retouching. To find out more about the painting, its intriguing link with Diego Velasquez, and its ongoing conservation watch the Open University’s podcast

The Last Communion of Saint Peter Nolasco before conservation

Bronze Mirror [1992.5/FW]
This bronze mirror by Ferdinand Barbédienne (1810-1892) was the chief exhibit on his stand at the 1867 Universal Exhibition in Paris. The figures were modelled by Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887), and the chasing is by Desiré Attarge (c.1820 – 1878). Before conservation, the mirror frame was structurally sound, but the surface was heavily tarnished. This gave the object a radically different appearance to that originally intended by the designer. The silver-plated bronze elements also had at least one coat of post-construction lacquer which had been applied without diligent cleaning. This had trapped dirt below the lacquer and added to the dull blue-grey appearance.

The mirror was sent to specialist metal conservator Rupert Harris. The conservation treatment of the mirror involved careful cleaning to remove both post-construction lacquer, underlying soiling, and silver tarnish. The results were spectacular, and the mirror is restored to its former glory. 

The mirror before conservation

Portrait of Olive Boteler Porter by Van Dyck [O.317]
The Portrait of Olive Boteler Porter was purchased by The Bowes Museum’s founders, John & Joséphine Bowes in 1866. The painting – an oil on canvas – has been in the collection since the building opened to the public in 1892. The painting was recorded in the Museum’s files as being ‘School of Van Dyck’. Its sophisticated drapery, colouring and facial expression are typical of Van Dyck’s female portraits of the 1630s, although they were overlooked due to the painting’s poor condition.

The portrait came to the attention of Dr Bendor Grosvenor, an art historian and dealer,  through the Public Catalogue Foundation and the BBC’s Your Paintings website, which records the ‘hidden paintings’ in collections of museums and other public buildings across the country. He proposed an investigation into the true identity of the sitter, and the artist. The story was broadcast on the flagship BBC2 programme, the Culture Show, in March 2013.

The painting was originally thought to be a portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria, but later research identified the sitter as the queen’s lady-in-waiting, Olive Boteler Porter, the wife of Van Dyck’s friend and patron Endymion Porter. While in England, Van Dyck painted a number of portraits of different members of the family. Olive was the daughter of Sir John Boteler and Elizabeth Villiers, niece of the Duke of Buckingham. The red carnation in her hair may be a heraldic motif, since it appears in other images of female members of the Villiers family.

In 2012, after Dr Grosvenor raised initial interest in the painting, a sympathetic programme of conservation was undertaken. This removed the disfiguring varnish layers, revealing the tonal subtleties of the sitter’s skin and her white satin dress, together with the quality of the drawing. The painting has now been examined by a number of Van Dyck scholars who agree that a previously unknown work by this artist has been hiding in the Museum’s picture store. The painting is now on display in the Museum’s picture galleries.


Portrait of Olive Boteler Porter before conservation