When the previous owner of Petworth House, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, decided during the 1820s that he wanted space for new artworks on his walls, he took a rather unusual approach to redecorating.
Rather than remove the portraits of high ranking noblewomen, painted by Michael Dahl in the seventeenth century, from pride of place in Petworth House’s ‘beauty room’ altogether – he ordered his workers to chop off their legs, declaring: “I will cut off their legs, I do not want their petticoats.”
Six of the paintings of the so-called ‘Beauties’ were cut down to three-quarter length.
Now, after 200 years, the chopped-off pieces are being carefully reattached to two of the paintings before they are loaned to the Tate Britain for a landmark new exhibition, British Baroque: Power and Illusion.
Fortunately for J. Dimond Conservation, which has the tricky job of restoring the paintings, the Earl’s workers did not discard the cut pieces of canvas.
Instead they roughly re-attached,then folded and tacked up behind the paintings.
Their survival was only discovered in 1995, when Trust curators took them down for some conservation work.
Tina Sitwell, the National Trust’s Paintings Conservation Adviser, said: “It is quite unusual for paintings to be cut and the pieces then folded up behind them in this way.
“It may well be that having cut them, somebody decided to save the pieces to allow the paintings to be restored in the future.
“We’ll never know for sure.”
She said having the opportunity to restore the pieces was ‘tremendously exciting’ but warned: “The conservation experts will have some challenges.
“One painting was cut cleanly but the other has jagged edges and both have holes where tacks were used to hold the cut sections in place.
“To re-align and seamlessly re-join the two cut pieces will be a highly skilled and difficult structural treatment.
“Following this, the edges of the joins and any holes will require filling and careful retouching to match the original surface.
“But the cut pieces have otherwise survived well and our cleaning tests have shown that the paintings will be transformed, and will look bright and colourful after the work is completed.”
The two paintings, which depict Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire and Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormonde, both of Queen Anne’s court, will be available to view at the Tate from 5 February to 19 April 2020 in what will be its first ever exhibition to focus on baroque culture in Britain.
David Taylor, the National Trust’s Pictures & Sculpture Curator, and co-curator of the Tate Britain exhibition, said: “The significance of the ‘Beauties’ as part of the extraordinary picture collection at Petworth cannot be overestimated.
“They have been displayed in the heart of the house since the 1690s, originally as part of the wider baroque scheme in the Beauty Room for which they were commissioned.
“The 6th Duke of Somerset frequently dined in the room and hosted important visitors including Charles VI, future Holy Roman Emperor, where they would have been surrounded by the portraits looking down on them.
Tabitha Barber, curator at Tate Britain, said: “The pictures would have had tremendous impact in their day and were regarded as one of the sights of Petworth.
“In the exhibition we will be recreating an element of their original display, with full length mirrors in between them.
“They would have reflected candlelight and allowed viewers the novelty of catching a glimpse of themselves in full-length alongside the ‘beauties’.
“The room advertised the wealth, taste and private networks of the Duke and Duchess of Somerset and we couldn’t be more delighted to be able to bring this element of magnificent display to our exhibition.”