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!

Screenshot 2019-03-29 at 11.06.22.png

 

— Kate

It’s crazy how fast time flies and how things progress.

Honestly, I pay for this domain name. I need to stop abandoning it for long stretches. Also, if I keep it alive this year it’ll be a 5 year old blog. I don’t think I’ve ever kept a plant alive that long.

So. Anyway.

When last we spoke, it was the beginning of a long, dry, hot summer in the UK. We didn’t see rain here in Essex for over 50 days. It normally rains here at least once a week if that gives you an idea of how crazy it was. Ah, but ignoring the parched earth it was glorious. We roamed the local country park a few times both with and without picnics. We went to Mersea Island and played on the beach. We even accidentally came at high tide and had to drive through the sea a little bit. Don’t worry, the Mini did fabulously.

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this summer was the need to leave the windows open as much as possible, especially at night to try and drop the temperature in our bedroom from 29º down to 25º (if we were lucky). During the daytime we mostly had to chase flies and the occasional rogue wasp out of the living room because of this, but then the Flying Ant Day Accident occurred.

Flying Ant Day is a strange British phenomena. Normally, these pavement ants do not have wings and are happy to live their lives underground. However, there is a point in the summer that they reach breeding season and all seem to grow wings and fly en masse. (Apparently it’s not just a single day and happens across the UK all summer long, but it’s still an impressive swarm when it happens near you.) This type of swarm is like midges or gnats, but much larger. They don’t really do anything to you other than get in your face, but in a swarm it’s awful.

HOWEVER, they do seem to like the light, very much like moths. And we have a streetlight outside of our bedroom window. “Well that’s a bit creepy to watch, but surely no harm right?” you say to me. Oh but wait. One of us accidentally left the bedroom light on when we’d gone up to open the windows and then shut the bedroom door so the cat couldn’t get out of the house.

Perfect. Storm.

M was still having a glass of water and otherwise getting ready for bed downstairs whilst I came upstairs to sort out my clothing for work the next morning, only to be confronted with something that looked like a scene out of a horror film. HUNDREDS OF FLYING ANTS ALL OVER THE ROOM. They were in the windowsill, the curtains, the lampshade, the bedding, the laundry, and all over the floor. They were crawling the walls and ceiling. Honestly, the photo doesn’t do justice to the horror of it.

My initial reaction was just to stare at them and then scream for M to bring up the fly spray. (Why I thought a can of fly spray would fix this I don’t know.) I stood, riveted in the doorway, somehow thinking that if I took my eyes off of the swarm that they’d all come down the stairs and into the rest of the house. Thankfully, M came up and had more common sense in how to deal with the scene.

Long story short, M emptied an entire can of Raid in our room and half filled a Dyson vacuum with flying ants before we went to bed two hours later, sleeping in the guest bedroom. Everything in the room that could be washed was washed, including the bedding that I had just changed that afternoon. 😥

IMG_1020

Plagues of ants and drought aside, nature decided to just get a bit rude in general. The heat spiked to new and exciting levels, and the train network is not currently equipped to deal with weather so extreme. This had happened last year and there was about a week that it was nigh on impossible to get on a train into or from London.

This year they did try to do some things to help with the heat. A lot of the rails in the stations had their sides painted white in an effort to drop the heat whilst the trains were at the platforms and prevent the tracks from buckling and warping. However, when the weather stations starting predicting a heat spike so intense that it could make new records, the train companies just decided “sod it” and preemptively cancelled trains at about 9:30 the night before. Awesome, right? At one point they could only run a train an hour from Colchester to London, and I’m amazed those trains didn’t get stopped more from overcrowding and overheating inside of them. It was insanity.

Supposedly, Greater Anglia is getting new trains out in 2020 and they’ll all come equipped with blessed air conditioning. Why do I feel like the seats are going to be even smaller though?

IMG_1310

When I was able to get into work, I was able to work on my last project as staff at the NHM. We’ve already processed all the Toxodon fossils that Darwin sent back from South America on his Beagle journey and posted them online, but the chance came to reunite two portions of a Giant Ground Sloth skull that haven’t been together since Darwin cut them into two pieces. Not only did I get to witness the event, but I got to scan said pieces! It was all very cool, and a fitting way to end my work.

You see, I had applied and been accepted to do a PhD at UCL whilst working alongside the NHM. But we’ll get back to that later!

IMG_1332

FINALLY, we got rain in Essex again. It took weeks for the grass to go back to green and the cracks in the earth to heal, but it was amazing to have it back. We joked that my mother in law is apparently a water spirit, as every time she comes to Essex it rains. If we’d have known, we’d have had them over much sooner!

Towards the end of the summer it was finally beginning to cool down, and the Heritage Open Days EU project kicked off, opening access to historical places that are either usually closed to the public or paid entry only. Most everyone went to the castle, but I had a list of some of the more obscure and usually closed buildings that I desperately wanted to see, and a husband with an infinite sense of patience for my love of all things old.

We were only able to do one of the open days, but in that day we went up and down Colchester and managed to see the inside of the Anglo-Saxon church (the oldest in town), the facade that houses the archaeological discovery of a Roman theatre (you can easily walk by it), the interior and the view from the upper floor of the old abbey gate (the only thing still standing of the abbey), and most of the structure of Tymperleys, home to William Gilberd, scientist and physician to Elizabeth I (and now a place with most excellent scones).

Autumn began to creep in with cooler weather, and with it came the time to go back to school again. I could have sworn I was never going to do a PhD, but here I am. In fairness, my future predictions have been pretty wildly off the mark so far, so it’s not exactly surprising.

Before the official start of term, all of us in the SEAHA program (Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology) convened in a village outside of Brighton for an induction into the way of things, and a chance to get to know and bond with our fellow students. I am so, so glad they did this for us, and not just because the hotel was amazing. Getting to know everyone in advance really helped make the first few weeks much easier.

One can’t stay in opulent hotels forever, and after the weekend retreat we were ready to begin lectures. Of course, this is SEAHA and we are anything but standard, so they included a trip to Stonehenge halfway through the first module, so we could write up a presentation in the second half about what we would do to modify the current A303 Stonehenge tunnel plans to make them better, using our mixture of experiences. It was more of a challenge than expected, but we ended up with new friends out of the experience and I can now tell you far more about the proposed tunnel project than I ever thought I could.

With autumn also came the harvest season, and this year I was feeling crafty. There are shedloads of sloe berries and growing on the side of a quiet road near the fields I jog past, and eventually I got up the idea to go harvest them and attempt a batch of sloe gin. You aren’t supposed to pick them until after the first frost, but the hot summer had rather killed a fair few of them, so I just picked them and froze them in the freezer at home to make up for it.

They were then added into a jar with obscene amounts of sugar, and of course, some gin. We left them to infuse until just before Christmas, then strained and decanted them out. Some have been given as little Christmas trinkets, with the firm advice that they’ll be better if they’re left until about mid-January to drink. I for one am excited to try ours out, perhaps mixed in with some prosecco, or even by making a proper sloe gin fizz!

As it does every year, my birthday snuck up on me. This year is the last year of my twenties. M thought it amusing to get a tiny cake and put 29 candles on it, so I brought out the fire extinguisher just in case. (Did you know you can buy fire extinguishers and fire blankets on Amazon Prime? Best late night purchase M’s made in some time!)

I didn’t really have any grand goals to achieve by the end of this year, and I’m still not sure what I want to do for my 30th birthday party. On one end, I could have a bunch of people around and make a big do of it, or it could just be the two of us on an adventure somewhere. I should probably sort it out before springtime.

Regardless, this birthday was a fabulous birthday, with cake, a new coat I’d been lusting after, and an evening out in the lovely medieval section of Colchester. 🙂

IMG_1723

Classes back in swing, birthday survived, and coats brought out of storage, we trundled into the cool autumn air. Except this time, I had friends from the US coming around with me! As is the Great American Tradition when coming to the UK, we managed to traverse across a wide swathe of the country in a little over a week. The two of them even carried on into Wales, but alas, I had to get some work done for the module. We did try to give them a weird and wonderful ride through bits of the country that not everyone goes to see on a typical tourist tour, but some things you’ve just got to see – like Stonehenge!

It’s always so exciting when people come to the UK, whether or not they’re coming to say hello. Being on an hour’s ride into London means it’s usually easy to catch up with people, schedules permitting. It was hard to part ways, but back to the States they eventually had to go, and the cat finally decided to come out of hiding and take up her roost in the living room again.

Module one was completed with much grumbling and typing, but completed successfully. I’m now at the tail end of module two, which had a bit of a twist to it this time. We had the option to do a basic laboratory procedure in the lecture hall, or we could liaise with our supervisors and do one elsewhere that might further relate towards the PhD. Needing to learn how to run an SEM and process photogrammetric data anyway, I opted to go back to the NHM. Over the course of two weeks I have learned how to dehydrate a specimen, coat it for SEM, run the basics of an SEM, and process photogrammetric images! It all sounds rather fancy for staring at a fly face for two weeks. I’m currently tweaking the write up of my experiment, and it goes in for submission next Monday. Looking forward to what the next module will hold!

In between modules, M and I left the country again. My parents were going to see one of our exchange students and her family, and they were kind enough to invite us to stay at their house as well. We took them up on their generous offer and ended up with an absolutely unique experience of the Netherlands that one could only get from a local, and got to see my parents! I would definitely like to go back to the Netherlands, but perhaps when it’s a bit warmer. Those winds coming off of the ocean have nowhere to go but straight into your bones.

Whilst there, we took a train over for a day trip into Germany as my mom had never been. It’s fascinating to see the sharp difference between the Netherlands and Germany, seemingly just across the border. We’d hoped to see the Christmas market in Dusseldorf, but arrived a little too early. It wasn’t a lost trip though, as we got to see the famous Rhine River and a painstakingly redone Altstadt, built back up after the war.

Christmas showed up soon afterwards in a big way. When not covering our house in tinsel and Christmas cards, we were out and about and enjoying the festive spirit of it all. Got the chance to pop into Paycocke’s House and the Grange Barn out in Coggeshall for their special Christmas hours. It really did feel like going back into Tudor Christmastime, and I only wish I hadn’t gone by myself as it seemed like it’s really meant for company to come along.

Getting closer to Christmas, we managed a long weekend journey up to York to catch up with our Northern friends. I probably should have known better than to go into the Christmas Markets in York, but we braved the crowds and found some fabulous little trinkets and all kinds of snacks! Even managed to score a table with seats in The Three Tuns at peak pub hour in the rain, of which I was far too proud. Finally, late into the evening, we saw the Shambles quiet and then took ourselves back to the AirBNB for the night.

And then before we knew it, the last few weeks had passed and it was Christmas! We went up to Manchester to celebrate at M’s big sister’s new home. It’s a gorgeous new build with a massive back garden. Their days of househunting really paid off. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of it, as I appear to have caught food poisoning off something just before we arrived. Thankfully the sickbed was comfortable and M made sure to keep a steady supply of Sprite, so it could have been far worse. Other than that hiccup, it was really good to see everyone, especially our ever growing nephew of whom nobody can rival in Marvel knowledge. Honestly, I’d call that kid first on any game show.

We got back home for New Year’s, had a quiet night of it, and then slowly dragged ourselves back into the real world.

So here we are, a lightning trip into the present. Now that I’m not on the trains for 4 hours every day, I should hopefully be a bit better about popping in every now and then. Until we see each other next, hope you’re having a good one. 🙂

 

— Kate

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

First major museum field trip! We were given a section at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival alongside a good handful of colleagues from around the museum. Our demonstrations were on 3D surface scanning and creating 3D images and prints within the Natural History Museum. But first, I had to get there.

Had a bit of a hiccup Wednesday evening. I had already intended on doing half a day in the office and then heading back up to Chelmsford on the train so M and I could drive down. Unfortunately, either I straight up lost my season ticket holder or someone nicked it. Regardless, I ended up halfway to Liverpool Street Station via the District Line before I realised what had happened. Apparently if you come up to the station staff at the barrier gates with a concerned look on your face and tell them you’ve lost your Oyster card, they’re really pretty helpful. Greater Anglia, not so much. The lady at the desk was lovely enough, but unlike TfL they won’t just replace your lost/stolen card. Even though it’s a SmartPass and all the details are saved in the system that prove it’s me. They were kind enough to freeze the card and let me buy a single ticket home. Ugh.

Thankfully, the monthly passes were both set to expire before I got back from travelling anyway, so that wasn’t too awful. Even better, my manager is a saint and let me work from home for the half day. Probably for the best, as we were definitely not packed the night before in any useful amounts. Eventually, the significant otter left the hospital and we packed up the car to drive the 4.5 hours to Lyme Regis.

The drive was gloriously uneventful and we made it in around 10 pm. Everyone else was already at the cottage and set up, so we all caught up and then headed to bed. It was due to be a busy day the next day.

IMG_4376
The view from our cottage room Friday morning.

The next morning was our schools day. Constant streams of small children in washes of different coloured uniforms poured through the doors. Most had the level of excitement and attention you’d expect at that age, but some were genuinely thrilled by the prospect of 3D and microscopes. It’s a beautiful moment to watch the beginnings of a small scientist. 🙂

M had of course come down with me, but obviously wasn’t part of the museum so enjoyed a nice lie in and a wander around the town while the rest of us were up at the Fossil Festival location. At lunchtime I got a break and he and I wandered around together and enjoyed the distinct lack of rain (It’s either full on or off at the English coast. I’m convinced there’s no in between.). This year, the Fossil Festival was being held across the town rather than in one location, so we went to see what other groups were doing, between strolling the beach and eating chips cautiously. (Seriously, the seagulls were downright predatory if you weren’t careful.)

It was a trip to the pub after the event wrapped up for the night and a game of skittles, then a slog up the 14% incline of a hill back to our cottage. (Views like that don’t come for nothing!) The next day was our busiest day of the weekend, and we went out in full force. We scanned objects from fossils to children’s wellies, and showed 3D images from microscopic to full size. The public engagement and honest excitement and interest was fantastic. We guessed from rough estimates that we had probably 230 people come and chat with us.

There was a brief lull around lunchtime, probably due to the lovely weather and hungry children. That was quickly rectified though with an inflatable T. rex costume and a walk down the pier. People seem to want to know where a dinosaur and giggling museum staff are headed. Who would have guessed?

Before we all set off for another trip to another pub for food, it was mandatory for me to go see the grave of Mary Anning. You see, Mary Anning was one of the pioneers in fossil collecting and helped to change the views on what prehistoric life even was. Of course, she was ignored in her own time, despite her accomplishments, and didn’t even get a grave to herself. Instead, she is buried with her brother. Still, she was a really interesting lady that you should read into if you have a free moment. She is the “she sells seashells on the seashore” inspiration behind the tongue twister!

The evening was spent roving the town with my colleagues and M, eventually ending up at a party held at the house of a local fossil collector. I’m still not entirely sure how so many people ended up in such as small area, but it was a riot of a time. Because I am an old lady, M and I bowed out around midnight for home. Most of the rest of the crew didn’t come home until gone 2ish, from what I was told. And who says scientists are boring?

IMG_4488The final day dawned and we all managed to arrive in mostly one piece. Our scanning did get a bit silly as the day went on, but the public seemed to rather enjoy it. I mean really, who doesn’t like a pork pie – digital or real? (Okay okay, maybe just me. But it was good fun!)

It was throwing down sheets of drizzle all day, so having a nice walk at break time was a bit out of the question. At that point though, I was too tired and cold to want more than caffeine and dry shoes. Lesson learned for next year – prepare to get by on a lot less sleep than usual.

At the end of it all though, we all cleared up the location and headed out for one last night on the town with the NHM crew. It was a lovely bonding moment for all of us, and I can see why people come back again and again to do it. I think I may need the year to recover, but it’d be good fun to go back again next time! Now hang on until next week and I’ll tell you about how we got in the car and drove straight for the coasts of the other end of the country.

— Kate