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