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‘Tales of the Unexpected’ in conservation talks via Zoom

October 15, 2020 @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm

The BAPCR are delighted to announce that many of the speakers from the BAPCR conference in January 2020 have agreed to give their talks again. Here are the details of our Zoom talks on the 15th October 2020 at 7pm.

Molly Hughes-Hallett Hamilton Kerr Institute

Shedding the Centuries: The Rediscovery of an Early 16th Century Predella

Marta Melchiorre National Gallery, London
Integration of MA-XRF Scanning and Hyperspectral Imaging into Research and Conservation Activities at the National Gallery

These talks are free of charge for all BAPCR members. A limited number of non-members can book a place at these talks for £5 per guest. Please email [email protected] for a Zoom invitation and payment details.

Molly Hughes-Hallett

Shedding the Centuries: The Rediscovery of an Early 16th Century Predella

This paper explores the process of contextualising a Spanish triptych, Entombment flanked by Saint Barbara and Saint Catherine of Alexandria (owned by Trinity College, Cambridge), which went through an extensive conservation treatment, aided by technical and art historical analysis. In 2018 the triptych was brought to the Hamilton Kerr Institute, Cambridge, for technical analysis to investigate what this object was. It had no provenance or known history, no date or associated artist, and no known place of origin. Extensive overpaint obscured the original paint layers, leading the owners to believe it was a later pastiche of an authentically older object. However, technical analysis revealed that a 19th century restoration campaign was covering intact original paint layers, proving the triptych to be a unique and extreme example of the influence of taste on a restoration. The composition had been dramatically reworked, altering the forms of the female saints, and reducing the grotesque nature of the entombment so that it would be more palatable for a 19th century audience. Despite ninety percent of the original paint layers being covered by the garish restoration, the original paint was in surprisingly good condition.

This project is an example of where technical investigation was paramount to understanding the true nature of an object; aiding in assessing the condition of the original paint layers, and planning an appropriate treatment strategy. Much of the understanding of the painting and its context had to be determined without seeing the original paint layers or composition. Through examining the materials and techniques, the triptych has been identified as a banco (Spanish equivalent of a predella) of a Spanish altarpiece originating from Aragon. Ultimately, this close examination of the material history of the object allowed for the physical properties of the 19th century restoration to be exploited, and enabled a novel method of overpaint removal which avoided harming the original paint layers.

Very few Spanish works of this time period exist in the U.K., thus this project was aided significantly by an ARCHlab grant, which allowed the conservator to visit the Museo del Prado, Madrid, and discuss technical analysis findings with Spanish experts. Now, through exposing the original paint layers during the complicated and extensive conservation work, and supported by extensive technical and art historical research, a more comprehensive understanding of this object, its context, and its ultimate function has been reached.


Molly Hughes-Hallett is currently completing her second year as a postgraduate advanced intern at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge, where she has worked on a number of projects including the research and treatment of several Spanish paintings from a range of time periods. She received her postgraduate degree in the conservation of easel paintings from the Courtauld Institute of Art in 2017. Her final year research thesis investigated the applicability of a novel micro-RTI system in the examination of subtle surface texture on modern and contemporary paintings, and was a collaborative project with Yale University. In 2012, Molly completed a B.A in Art History at Tufts University, Boston, and a B.F.A in Studio Art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Marta Melchiorre, Catherine Higgitt, Rachel Billinge, Marika Spring

Integration of MA-XRF Scanning and Hyperspectral Imaging into Research and Conservation Activities at the National Gallery

The National Gallery in London has recently introduced the use of two new state-of-the-art non-invasive spectroscopic imaging techniques to support the technical investigation of paintings. These techniques complement and enhance the existing range of technical imaging methods available and the detailed study of paint micro-samples currently undertaken. These techniques are macro X-ray fluorescence scanning (MA-XRF) and hyperspectral imaging (HSI), the latter working at high resolution in a very broad spectral range (from the visible to the infrared domain, 400-2500 nm).

MA-XRF allows the distribution of chemical elements (and thus pigments or certain degradation products) in surface and sub-surface layers to be mapped across an entire painting. HSI provides highly complementary information about materials distributions based on molecular composition. In addition, because the wavelength range of the HSI system extends into the short wave infrared, it is also possible to reveal details of underdrawings or pentimenti that are difficult to see by conventional infrared reflectography (IRR) due to surface paint, such as malachite, that is not easily penetrated by the wavelengths used for IRR.

This talk will introduce the two techniques and then illustrate the benefits of their application through a series of case studies based on paintings that have recently been conserved or examined at the National Gallery. These examples will demonstrate the new insights that can be gained to support art historical research, inform conservation treatments and aid studies of materials degradation and other technical investigations of artists’ materials and methods, and will reveal some ‘tales of the unexpected’!


Marta Melchiorre joined the National Gallery Scientific Department in 2017 as the AXA Research Fellow, carrying out research into the combined use of MA-XRF scanning and visible-nIR-SWIR hyperspectral imaging to investigate painting materials and assess paintings condition to enhance collection care and conservation strategies. In 2018 she became a permanent member of staff, building on her previous research into the use of non-invasive analytical imaging techniques and starting to specialise in the study of historical painting techniques and materials, with a particular focus on the investigation of pigments. Her background is in conservation science and she has completed a PhD on the conservation of contemporary wall paintings and a post-doctorate on historical painting techniques of German polychrome sculptures from the 17th and 18th century period. She worked as Scientist at the British Museum and Historic Royal Palaces, where she had the opportunity to undertake a variety of research projects including the development and evaluation of methodologies to be used in conservation treatments and the use of chromatographic techniques for the characterisation of organic colourants in museums and archaeological objects.

Catherine Higgitt joined the National Gallery, London in 1999 as an organic analyst, specialising in the study of paint binding media and other amorphous organic materials, having previously completed a PhD in chemistry. Between 2007 and 2015 she was Head of Science at the British Museum. In 2015 she returned to the National Gallery as Principal Scientific Officer, building on her previous research and helping to extend the range of analytical and imaging approaches available within the department for the study of paintings. Her role has included introducing the use of MA-XRF scanning into institutional practice and helping to develop cutting edge visible-nIR-SWIR hyperspectral imaging equipment for use at the Gallery. She has a particular interest in the ageing and deterioration of organic materials and on the interactions between inorganic and any associated organic materials (e.g. pigment-binder interactions, oxalate formation etc.), or between inorganic and organic materials and the environment.

Rachel Billinge graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Engineering Science in 1984. In 1990 she obtained an MA in the conservation of easel paintings at Newcastle-upon-Tyne Polytechnic. She joined the Conservation Department of the National Gallery, London in 1991 as Leverhulme Research Fellow in Infrared Reflectography and worked closely with Dr Lorne Campbell on the technical examination of the paintings studied for his catalogues of paintings by artists of the 15th and 16th century Netherlandish Schools. She is now employed at the National Gallery as a Research Associate, studying European paintings from the 13th to late 19th centuries; specializing in non-destructive technical analysis, particularly infrared reflectography but also macroXRF scanning, X-radiography, stereomicroscopy, and surface-textural mapping.

Marika Spring joined the National Gallery Scientific Department in 1992, becoming Head of Research in 2010 and Head of Science in 2013. Her principal research field is the study of historical painting techniques and materials, including technical studies of specific schools of painting (particularly from the 15th and 16th century period), deterioration of historic pigments and the history and use of certain painting materials. She has had a long interest in new emerging instruments and methods for analysis or examination, including in the past ATRFTIR imaging and more recently the non-invasive technologies of optical coherence tomography and macro Xray fluorescence scanning. Since becoming Head of Science she has been working to build up non-invasive analytical imaging at the National Gallery, which has seen the acquisition and development of a range of the latest technologies to support research at the Gallery.


October 15, 2020
7:00 pm - 9:00 pm


Via Zoom