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Sir Francis Walsingham, Unknown artist, late 16th century © National Portrait Gallery, London.

LONDON.- The National Portrait Gallery, London has announced today (Thursday 3 January 2013) that is has discovered hidden paintings beneath Tudor portraits in the Collection including its portraits of Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset and Sir Francis Walsingham. The discoveries are displayed as part of Hidden: Unseen Paintings Beneath Tudor Portraits in the recently remodelled Room 3. 

Recent analysis undertaken as part of the Making Art in Tudor Britain project has used scientific techniques to analyse the portraits in the display to increase the understanding of the working practices of Tudor artists. The project has used infrared reflectography and x-radiography to explore the processes employed in making these portraits, enabling examination of the layers beneath the paint surface. It was during this technical research that hidden images behind the portraits were discovered. 

The works in Hidden: Unseen Paintings Beneath Tudor Portraits include the National Portrait Gallery’s portrait of the Lord Treasurer and poet Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset by an unknown artist, 1601, which during x-ray revealed a fully worked up version of The Flagellation of Christ painted beneath the surface. The composition is derived from a fresco in the Borgherini Chapel in Rome by Sebastiano del Piombo after designs by Michelangelo. After the chapel’s unveiling in 1524 the artist Adamo Scultori produced an engraving and the composition became more widely known. An engraving depicting The Flagellation of Christ by Adamo Scultori after Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo (The British Museum, London) along with the x-ray of Thomas Sackville’s portrait are displayed here together. 

Other works in the display include the National Portrait Gallery’s portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s Protestant spymaster and Secretary of State, which appears to have been painted over an earlier devotional depiction of the Virgin and Child. Infrared reflectography revealed there were at least three figures beneath the portrait and in x-ray it became evident that these were likely to be of the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ, with either the figure of Joseph or an angel also visible. The circumstances of the re-use of the panel are unknown and given Walsingham’s ardent religious beliefs had he known of this re-use he would not have approved. Dendrochronology (tree-ring) analysis has suggested that the panel was first used between 1547 and 1579, whilst the portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham dates to the mid 1580s. This portrait hangs alongside the technical images that revealed the secret painting and also The Virgin and Child in a Garden, style of Martin Schongauer (The National Gallery, London), which gives an impression of what the original composition may have looked like. 

Dr Tarnya Cooper, Chief Curator of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘It has been really exciting to discover these images beneath portraits; they were unexpected and have raised some interesting questions about materials and the intentions of artists. The re-use of wooden panels is an example of Tudor recycling, which was an essential part of life in the past. And yet, the people in the portraits painted over the top were perhaps unlikely to have known the panels were second hand. In the case of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Protestant Spymaster with the Roman Catholic image of the Virgin and child beneath, you do wonder if the artist might be enjoying a private joke at the expense of the sitter.’ 

Making Art in Tudor Britain (five year research project) has been supported by: AHRC, British Academy, John S Cohen Trust, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Idlewild Trust, Leche Trust, The Leverhulme Trust, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art,The Mercers’ Company, PF Charitable Trust, Marit and Hans Rausing Charitable Foundation and an anonymous donor. 

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X-ray image of the portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham.