All That Glitters is Not Gold

by Dr Caroline Rae, Caroline Villers Research Fellowship holder, 25 January 2017

The process of microscopy allows a comparative examination of minute details of brushwork not normally visible to the naked eye. In this post, Dr Caroline Rae describes how this technique has illuminated the different materials and techniques used to create the illusion of jewellery and expensive golden thread on three works attributed to Jacobean artist Adrian Vanson.

James VI and I, 1566 - 1625. King of Scotland 1567 - 1625. King of England and Ireland 1603 - 1625, Adrian Vanson, 1595

Great care has been taken to depict the gold brocade and doublet worn by the king on this portrait - one of his finest surviving portraits from this period. Technical examination suggests that at least three hands were at work in creating this painting. The looser, more confident style used to create the sitter’s face and cloak contrast with the precise and systematic techniques used to paint the hat-band and doublet. This is not unusual - it was common practice for artists in Europe at the time to have up to four studio assistants. The artist who painted the doublet has very precisely painted in each individual thread using neat strokes of lead-tin yellow paint, as revealed in a photomicrograph taken from this area. A different hand appears to have been at work in the creation of the jewelled hat-band. This artist combines precise, deft strokes with a freer application of paint. Monogrammed jewellery was popular throughout the 16th century, but this reached its zenith during James’s reign when jewelled letters emblazoned with diamonds and rubies became the height of fashion at court, adorning garters, hat bands and brooches. The letter ‘A’ in James’s hat-band refers to his recent marriage to Anne of Denmark. The care taken to carefully represent these details in the painting reflects their importance within the composition in displaying the status of the king.

Detail of brocade in the portrait of James

Detail of hat band in the portrait of James

Lady Agnes Douglas, Countess of Argyll, about 1574 - 1607. Wife of the 7th Earl of Argyll, Adrian Vanson, 1599

Detail of gilding on the hair jewel in the portrait of Lady Agnes

Agnes Douglas and her six sisters were known as ‘the seven pearls of Lochleven’ due to their beauty. As in the previous portraits, the artist has taken great care in depicting the jewellery worn by the sitter - demonstrating to the viewer her status as an aristocrat. However, a notably different technique has been used to create the jewellery in this portrait. The jewellery on the sitter’s hair, her brooch, her bracelet and on the edging on her gloves, employs mordant gilding in which gold leaf was applied on top of an ochre-coloured underlayer (or mordant). The jewels are now abraded but it seems possible from an examination in microscopy that the gilding may have been used to add lustre to the rubies as an underlying layer rather than to indicate their setting. By the 1580s the use of gilding on full-size portraits was becoming obsolete, so its use on this portrait is notable.

George, 5th Lord Seton (about 1531 - 1585), aged 27, Adrian Vanson, 1570

This portrait of George, 5th Lord Seton, is a real tour-de-force in terms of painting technique and composition. Likely commissioned by Seton to commemorate his presence at the wedding of Mary Queen of Scots to the French Dauphin in 1558, the sitter’s face and costume have been painted by a highly-skilled artist. In order to create the illusion of golden embroidery of the thistle pattern on Seton’s doublet and cloak the artist has employed a typical system of yellow ochre underlayer beneath lead-tin yellow strokes to indicate glimmering highlights (similar to the system used on the doublet of James VI). However, this artist is notable for the beautiful, almost calligraphic quality of his brushstrokes, clearly visible in microscopy, which contrast with the laboured quality seen on the portrait of the king. This artistry is also apparent in the painting of the rubies which adorn Seton’s hat. Although again a standard system has been used to create the jewels, the artistry and economy of the paint application is exceptional. Here, the quality of the painting technique used to create details such as these, adds to the opulence of the portrait and to the magnificence of the sitter.

Microscopy has revealed the very different techniques used to create jewellery and cloth woven with golden thread in these three portraits. However, due to the common usage of studio assistants at the time, this evidence alone is not enough to suggest that they were not produced in the same workshop. Rather this is one of many interlocking strands of technical evidence which will be used overall to assess authorship of the group and to build a better picture of workshop practice at the time in Scotland.

Caroline is the holder of the Caroline Villers Research Fellowship this year which is jointly hosted by the Courtauld Institute of Art and the National Galleries of Scotland. Caroline’s research focuses on the examination of portraits from the collection attributed to Adrian Vanson and Adam de Colone, two Netherlandish artists who lived and worked in Scotland during the Jacobean period. Caroline is using well-established methods of technical examination, including microscopy, to examine questions of workshop practice and authorship in relation to both artists. More updates to follow...

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