The Portrait of Jane Halswell: Hanging By A Thread?

Right, so I am now a week and a bit back from living at Hellens Manor for ten days. You know what? For being in a stables with 15 other people every day, we all got on really well. And by the end of it, we’d even managed some science!

Have you ever been told about an object when you walk through a historical house that just stands out a bit? A good story, a bit of mystery, maybe just something unusual? Well that’s exactly what sparked our interest in doing research on a painting whilst on our field trip down to Hellens.

During our tour through the house, the manager Justine told us a story about the portrait of Jane Halswell. She was the last of the Halswell line and only living child to her parents. As such, she was an important person in the household and when her portrait was done, she was given the thread and handkerchief as a symbol of her rising adulthood.

This was the bit that stood out for us. Instead of merely painting the needlework on the wooden panels, we were told that the artist had actually incorporated a bit of thread into the painting. No one was entirely sure where the thread was, but the loose piece hanging between her hands was definitely raised and looked to be the potential candidate.

Out of all the other paintings in the house, this portrait and her mystery thread stuck in our minds, and at the end of the tour we asked if we could do analysis on her to see if the story was true.

We were limited in this experiment by only having imaging equipment to test with, but we did end up finding some points of interest throughout the process.

We took a series of photographs of Jane in what is called multispectral imaging. If you think of the spectrum of visible light – on either end are wavelengths that can’t be seen by the human eye, but we know they are there – so multispectral = multiple spectrums. You’ve probably heard of the types we worked with this time – infrared and ultraviolet. Infrared light is often what you see in movies being used to map heat in a building or on a person. To do this, we had a commercially purchased SLR camera that had the filters inside the lens removed after we got it. With no lenses, the camera will no longer capture images that look like what we see – more of a blue-ish tinge. To capture the infrared, we attached a filter onto the front of our lens with a red hue, allowing only infrared light to pass through into the camera. In this case, we know that underdrawings are likely to show up in infrared, due to the carbon in initial sketches. We hoped we might find evidence of the thread in this manner, but although it stood out it didn’t prove anything concrete. It merely showed us that the threading in the portrait was done thickly and with great precision.

Next, we delved into ultraviolet imaging. Ultraviolet, or UV, is most commonly known as a blacklight – the kind that makes white material glow in the dark. Again, this required an additional filter to be placed on the camera instead of the infrared one. Our blacklight was not the variety for parties and actually emitted a fairly potent dose of UV radiation, akin to a very powerful sunbed. With safety gear in place, we turned it on and took some photos. Again, we could not see anything stand out in the thread region.

However, we did find some interesting touch-up work had been done in the modern era. This portrait is dated to 1612 on the top left corner, but the purple and black marks showing up on the handkerchief are showing evidence of a different type of paint being used to fill in portions.

We saw this across the painting in the light and white areas, which suggests the lighter hues did not fare so well over time and needed a little help over the years. Also prevalent under the two spectrums was touch up work done along the large crack forming along the middle of the portrait. In person, this painting is very visibly warped and bowing in the middle. It makes sense to find attempts at a restoration done in this region as it would certainly have not been a part of the original artist’s idea.

So, what can we say at the end of this? Not much I’m afraid. The thread area is definitely raised markedly and it would have been a simple enough matter to paint a line, affix the thread, and then paint over it again to secure it in place. The thread at that time would also be of high enough quality to remain an equal width throughout the strand, so the uniform line of the portrait doesn’t rule it out.

At this point, a chemical analysis would be required of the region to determine if something such as linen, cotton, or wool was underneath the layers of paint and varnish. Perhaps a challenge for the next round of students to come to the property?

Regardless, it is a lovely portrait that has survived over 400 years and comes with an interesting story at that. I personally don’t see the problem in suggesting that there may be thread in the paint, but am incredibly curious to see if they ever get testing done to prove it. Science and history do blend ever so nicely together!

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— Kate

Running on Emergency Power

So yes. I have survived February. But you know what? It was pretty rough.

I know it’s ironic that someone who goes on about how taking care of your mental health is important went and let herself slip, but there we are. I went off my medication in November because it wasn’t working (I thought). I thought it was just the winter blues. I thought if I ploughed through it would get better. Then February hit, and with it a new wave of job insecurity and I just couldn’t anymore.

So I got help. I went back on my medicine, I dropped back on work projects, and I hunkered down. Now it’s a few weeks back on medicine and a holiday starting this weekend and I think the worst of it has passed and the sun is both metaphorically and literally coming back out. In the meantime in between though, it is very much like running on emergency power. You eat, sleep (somewhat), get dressed and go to work. You try not to be a monster to the people in your life. You have to remember that it DOES get better.

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Having lunch in the park with some sun does help lift the spirits a bit.

Life does continue on around you in all this, and I’m glad I was dragged out into the public on occasion and made to talk to other humans. Some cool things did still happen. In the lab I got to see a 14,700 year old human skull that they think was used as a ceremonial drinking bowl.  Some days this job is unreal and I love it.

Some more of the things I’ve been working on are finally being made public, and that’s pretty nifty. (Even if the photos of myself are a bit naff.) The cetaceans project is still in progress, though on the back burner to the Toxodon one. Also, they finally put a 3D model of Hope the Blue Whale online! On one hand, working on high visibility projects is an honour and is amazing work. On the other hand, working on high visibility projects is ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING if something goes wrong. And just a behind-the-scenes secret – something will always go wrong. You just have to hope the time you budgeted in for the snafu is enough. And that it doesn’t snow.

And snow it did! The Beast from the East came through Britain and froze everything. Normally it’s just the north that gets the snow dump, but this time around, Colchester and the surrounding East Anglia got an absolute blizzard on and off over four days. Trains were cancelled, buses weren’t running, and grocery stores ran out of random food supplies. It was a wild week, and then just gone by Monday. It felt like being back in Idaho for a bit.

Outside of work, M and I went down to Brighton to visit friends in the month. It was rainy, but it was really cool from what I did see. I’d love to go back in the summer sometime. On the way home we also found a display of Roman remains dug up in a motorway service station, displayed between the toilet entrances and the fast food seating. Truly an English phenomena. Snuck a bit of America in though. Five Guys are opening up in all the major towns and cities here in the UK, and I think I’ve gotten M hooked on the new Colchester one. Bwahaha.

Also in Colchester – did you know that Twinkle Twinkle Little Star was written here? The house is still privately owned, but you can see the plaque on the front of it. That and the Pizza Express down the road has conspicuously themed their restaurant around the rhyme.

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We may have walked by at like 10 at night, humming the tune like creepers.

If the pizza didn’t give a hint, any plans of my Year of Monthly Challenges hit a complete standstill when Depression snuck up. Snacks were eaten when snacks were offered. Somehow I still managed to lose another 1.8 kg (3.9 lbs), so that’s nice. However, February was survival mode, and March is healing mode, so we’ll just jump back on this 30-Day Challenge Bandwagon in April when I’m a functional human being again.

Anyway, I’m off to see my family and friends in Tennessee for nearly three weeks, and I’m so excited! I imagine that’ll likely be when you hear from me next, so speak soon. 🙂

— Kate