Restoring 'Christ Teacheth Humility' by Robert Scott Lauder (part three)

In the first part of this blog, the painting was introduced. Interestingly, it was one of the very first artworks acquired with the aim of establishing a Scottish National Gallery. Blog part two followed with a description of the various stages of the conservation treatment currently underway. This third instalment will explore what we have learned about the materials and in particular, the techniques used by the artist in the process of making this monumental picture. The systematic investigation of each layer allows us to explore the artist’s approach. It also provides an insight into what materials might have been at his disposal at that time, that is, in middle of the nineteenth century. The physical evidence prompts us to speculate how he developed the composition from the very first marks on the prepared canvas. 

Getting started – purchase of prepared painting support   

Unusual for a painting of this size and age, the canvas support remains ‘unlined’. This term refers to the fact that a second fabric has not been adhered to the reverse by a restorer to provide additional support – a structural intervention commonly undertaken in the past and less frequently so these days. However, the fabric has not been completely untouched by restorers. In 1983, with the intention of improving structural stability and overall tension of the painting, strips of canvas were attached to the weak and brittle tacking margins. This is what we describe as a ‘strip-lining’.

On the reverse of the canvas there is a distinct ink stamp identifying the supplier as T. Brown, 163 High Holborn, London and confirming that Scott Lauder purchased his materials from this established Artist’s Colourman (supplier of artists’ supplies) while he was working in the capital. 

Detail of canvas stamp at reverse.

The stretcher is an unusual design as the cross bars are not centrally positioned, suggesting that Scott Lauder may have been ordered it specially for the competition. This is an interesting characteristic that needs further research. 

The canvas was purchased pre-prepared. It had a white-coloured ground layer applied to the surface composed of lead white and chalk, probably bound in an oil medium. This would have presented Scott Lauder with a surface ready to paint. So how did he embark on this grand composition?

Infrared reflectography set up using Apollo camera.

Establishing a design – the preparatory painted underdrawing   

For a composition on this scale Scott Lauder is very likely to have carried out several preliminary drawings. We are aware of at least one small oil sketch as it is in the NGS collection. The analytical method most effectively employed to examine this early stage is infrared reflectography and we are fortunate to have a highly sophisticated digital camera in the Conservation Department specifically for this purpose.  

You might be wondering what exactly infrared reflectography is? 

Basically, infrared radiation is too long in wavelength for the human eye to see – hence the need for imaging techniques to make it visible.  A specially designed camera is used to ‘see through’ paint layers. Essentially, infrared radiation passes through paint until it reaches something that absorbs it, or it is reflected back to the camera. As carbon black is very absorbent of wavelengths of light in the infrared region, if an artist has begun a painting by drawing the design in black on a white ground, an infrared camera can make this visible. This stage is commonly known as an underdrawing but could be undertaken in a wet (paint) or dry (charcoal or pencil) medium. 

Infrared reflectography examination of Christ Teacheth Humility revealed some curious characteristics. In short, Scott Lauder did not adopt a consistent approach across this bold and ambitious composition. Many, seemingly minor adjustments were made during the painting process and while there is evidence of the use of preparatory sketches possibly for a few figures and hands, he appears to have struggled with some of the faces. Clearly, he was working out much of the finer detail of the design on the canvas while he painted. One particularly interesting figure for which we have a watercolour sketch is the little boy sitting on a stone ledge in the lower left. The gourd strapped across his back suggests he is a water-seller.

Infrared reflectogram detail of water seller, lower left.
Detail of water seller, lower left.

Look closely at the bamboo cane resting on the boy’s shoulder. In the finished painting it has a stubby end slightly bent to the left whereas the infrared reflectogram reveals that the initial plan was for the end of the cane to bend to the right. The watercolour sketch also has this earlier design and interestingly, this figure appears to be much older and with a different design of headgear. We therefore have quite a fluid process where the artist enjoys the freedom to makes changes in paint as the composition develops.

Handheld X-Ray-Fluorescence examination in progress.

The composition gets underway – the paint layers 

At the beginning of 2020 we hosted a post-graduate student placement from Glasgow University’s Technical Art History course. In February we were able to examine the painting in store with portable X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) borrowed from the University.

XRF identifies the heavier, non-organic chemical elements contained within a paint film. We can then extrapolate from this information the range of pigments used by the artist. Despite obvious limitations, it is a useful starting point and it also has the benefit of avoiding the removal of any original material from the surface. In a nutshell, we were able to confirm that Scott Lauder used a combination of traditional as well as more modern colours, that is entirely new pigments introduced earlier that century. 

It is well-known that the Industrial Revolution heralded major developments across many sectors of society. The 19th century witnessed an unprecedented expansion in the range of synthetic pigments available to both professional artists and an ever-expanding amateur artists’ market. For example, Naples yellow, a traditional lead antimonate pigment which has been in use for centuries was identified in the dull yellow robe of the man on the far left, while the brighter yellow sleeve belonging to the man with his hand on the column on the right appears to have been painted using Chrome yellow. As this latter pigment was only in general use from the second decade of 19th century, we have evidence of Scott Lauder embracing the new.   

Subsequent alterations – the painting returns to the artist 

Intriguingly, as early as 1849 it was reported that the picture exhibited symptoms of what was described at the time as ‘falling in of the colours’. This odd description is likely to refer to the surface appearing dull and undersaturated, which commonly occurs if the upper varnish layer is absorbed unevenly in places by the underlying paint layers. There was also ‘injury’ or damage inflicted on the surface caused by the painting being placed too close to ‘heated flues’ (chimneys) when exhibited at Sheffield shortly after completion.    

Scott Lauder was keen to restore the painting and he was given permission to do so with a mysterious ‘Mr Walker’. At the time it was noted that ‘these two gentlemen had been much engaged upon it, and its appearance had been greatly improved, though the restoration was not completed’…

Detail of sky upper right.

Without any additional documentary evidence to explain circumstances further, one possible scenario is that once the canvas was returned to Scott Lauder and removed from its frame, the artist could not resist the temptation to enhance and indeed, expand upon his original design. With large areas of exposed white ground layer in the corners previously hidden by the frame’s arch-shaped, gilded slip, it seems that Scott Lauder set upon embellishing his already prodigious design. The ‘slip’ refers to the inner part of the frame which in this case gives the painting its distinctive arched format. This he managed to do without having to change its original dimensions. Unpainted areas were previously hidden by the shaped inner slip of the frame. 

As oil paint layers age, they naturally increase in transparency. It is therefore likely that the transition between the two painting campaigns which was originally quite subtle, is now far more pronounced than the artist would have intended. A distinctive line, an inner arch, particularly in the sky on the right side, is visible. Essentially, the artist took advantage of the opportunity to expand the composition at either side and added two small figures in the background on the left and the distinctive tower-like structure on the right. Looking closely, we can see how the artist has dragged the stiff white paint across from the clouds over the already hardened paint film of the earlier, completed sky. The recent discoloured varnish removal has also made the disjunction between the two phases of painting more apparent.

Engraving of composition, courtesy of British Museum.

Impact and life beyond the original painting – engraving 

Despite failing to win the original Houses of Parliament competition, the composition was clearly a significant achievement for the artist and one that would secure his reputation. Not only did he carry out further life-size copies of Christ Teacheth Humility (we know of two - one in Hospitalfield, at Arbroath, another in the Ironbridge Gorge Museum in Shropshire), but in 1853 permission was granted to a Mr Egleton to carry out an engraving of the composition. At a cost of 400 guineas and taking over three years to complete, this was a major task but one that would allow the design to reach a much wider audience. The painting was also sent to London for this being photographed by the still relatively new calotype technique before heading south. 

Next steps? 

So, what are the plans for the painting once the conservation treatment is complete? Considering its position as one of the founding acquisitions for the Scottish National Gallery and our recent exploration of its development and early life, it is quite fitting that Christ Teacheth Humility will feature as a key work in the new displays. They are being designed to shine a light on the development of Scottish art. Beautiful new garden level galleries are due to open by the end of 2022 and Scott Lauder’s monumental picture will be shown in the broader context of the nineteenth century and in a display devoted to making art. 

The recent efforts to ensure that the painting will look its very best are the result of a substantial collaboration involving many colleagues at the National Galleries of Scotland. Delivering such a major project requires frame and paintings conservators to work alongside conservation technicians, curators, photographers, exhibition designers and architects as well as members of the digital and art movement teams. It is very much a collective effort and one that I am sure would have been appreciated by the artist himself.

By Lesley Stevenson, 30 April 2021