X-rays expose the hidden secret of Suky masterpiece

Nicky Grimaldi with the portrait of Suky Trevelyan at Wallington.
Nicky Grimaldi with the portrait of Suky Trevelyan at Wallington.

A LEGEND involving Wallington and two of the nation’s most revered artists has finally been answered.

Cutting-edge scientific techniques and painstaking research have revealed that Sir Joshua Reynolds did indeed rework a classic masterpiece from the brush of his rival Thomas Gainsborough.

But the extent of Reynolds’ reworking of Gainsborough’s 1761 portrait of the young Susannah ‘Suky’ Trevelyan — which has hung in the Cambo estate since shortly after being completed — has astounded even the art expert commissioned by the National Trust to probe into the historically priceless work’s past.

An astonishing 80 per cent of Gainsborough’s original painting has been changed, leaving just Susannah’s face and the background untouched.

And it has also emerged that Reynolds may not have made the rework unique to Susannah.

Research has revealed the Wallington painting is almost an exact copy of another Reynolds masterpiece of Charlotte Walpole, the Countess of Dysart, which hangs in the National Trust’s Ham House near Richmond.

Senior Lecturer in Conservation and Fine Art at Northumbria University Nicky Grimaldi, who led the research and investigation, said: “The findings will make people sit up and take notice.

“The Tate has a number of Reynolds’ they have been doing work on, but what they don’t have is a Gainsborough over-painted by a Reynolds.

“While it was not unusual for copying to go on 250 years ago, what is so important about this painting is that we are talking about Reynolds and Gainsborough.

“What has been discovered is of national and international significance.”

A throwaway remark by the influential 18th century social commentator and agriculturist Arthur Young is said to have greatly irritated Susannah’s uncle and then owner of Wallington, Sir Walter Calverley Blackett, who asked his friend Reynolds to work his own magic on the picture.

It now shows a vivacious young woman dressed in a fairytale white and gold satin dress, her uncovered hair cascading in ringlets past her shoulders.

But X-rays and infrared imaging have revealed that she was originally wearing a huge portrait hat with an under cap trimmed with pearls, teamed with a voluminous ruffled and flounced mid-blue dress.

In another twist, the changes may have been made by someone working for Reynolds as he regularly employed assistants.

The public will be able to decide for themselves which version they prefer when the portrait goes back on display at Wallington on Saturday following an 18-month absence.

There will also be a family room on the theme of the portrait with hands-on activities, including dressing-up clothes of the period.

On Saturday and Sunday, visitors will have the chance to gain an enchanting insight into the creation of beauty in the Georgian paintings of Reynolds and Gainsborough, as the secrets of the artists’ studio are revealed alongside sumptuous costumes.

For more information telephone 01670 773600.