Restored ‘Beauties’ paintings on display at Petworth for first time

Restored ‘Beauties’ paintings on display at Petworth for first time

This summer, the National Trust’s Petworth House in West Sussex is exhibiting two 17th-century portraits that were recently restored to full length after being shortened around 200 years ago.

The portraits of Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire and Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormonde, were painted by artist Michael Dahl and are considered to be some of his finest works. Originally displayed in the Beauty Room at the heart of Baroque Petworth, they are part of a series of eight female portraits best-known as the ‘Petworth Beauties’ which have given this room its name. The works were reduced to ¾ length in the 1820s when the 3rd Earl of Egremont, then owner of Petworth House, declared, ‘I will cut off their legs, I do not want their petticoats’. This was to make space on the wall for a new scheme of paintings dedicated to celebrating British victory over Napoleon, after the 3rd Earl’s second son, General Sir Henry Wyndham, fought in the Battle of Waterloo.

Remarkably, it wasn’t until 1995 when conservators took the paintings down to carry out conservation work that they discovered the lower sections of some of the ‘Beauty’ canvases had in fact been saved and were tacked up behind the paintings. Experts had to be meticulous when working on the restoration process, with rough edges and small tack holes to contend with to restore the portraits to their former glory. Conservation of the Petworth ‘Beauties’ took place in 2019 and was funded by the National Trust with generous support from Philip Mould & Company.

James Rothwell, National Curator said: ‘The portraits of the Duchesses of Ormonde and Devonshire by Michael Dahl have been transformed by their restoration – the lower parts of the canvases have been delicately joined back on and meticulous cleaning has revealed such superbly painted details as the flowers and jewels as well as the startling richness and colour of the costumes. As expressed by a contemporary, Dahl was particularly known for his prowess at depicting ‘genteel artful draperies, finely painted & well dispos’d’. The two duchesses, in their restored state, bear ample witness to that and show why there is a renewed appreciation of this brilliant portrait painter.’

Displayed at Petworth for the first time, after featuring in Tate Britain’s British Baroque: Power and Illusion exhibition in 2020, it is remarkable to see these two portraits and the quality of the restoration work close up. This loan request initiated a complete re-evaluation of the significance of the Beauty Room, which has led to a dramatic conservation and restoration campaign that is still under way today.

This work-in-progress display spotlights the extensive conservation work that has been undertaken to restore these two works to their former full-length glory. You can see the two restored paintings in the Exhibition Room at Petworth from Saturday 11 June to Sunday 30 October 2022, 10:30am-4:30pm (last entry 4pm). The portraits return in time for the start of a summer season of creative workshops, late open evenings, guided walks, and outdoor cinema, celebrating Petworth’s 75th anniversary in the care of the National Trust. You can also discover more about two of the Beauties paintings that hang in the Beauty Room in a new publication Petworth 75: Treasures from the Collection, which is available from Petworth House.

No advanced booking is needed for the spotlight display, but visitors are required to purchase a ticket to the site to enter, free for National Trust members. For prices and opening times visit the Petworth House and Park website.