Wednesday, February 21, 2024

‘Surprise’ true face of 17th-century beauty revealed

It has been likened to “the Kylie Jenner treatment” on a 17th-century society beauty. Conservators have discovered that a portrait of a noblewoman hailed in her lifetime as the wonder of her sex was altered by unimpressed Victorians to plump her lips and lower her hairline.

Following conservation, which reverses the makeover to reveal a truer likeness of Diana, Countess of Oxford and Elgin — and brings back the vivid original colours of her dress — the painting will go on display at Kenwood House in North London, from November 30.

Alice Tate-Harte, Collections Conservator (Fine Art) at English Heritage, said: “As a paintings conservator I am often amazed by the vivid and rich colours that reveal themselves as I remove old, yellowing varnish from portraits, but finding out Diana’s features had been changed so much was certainly a surprise! While the original reason for overpainting could have been to cover damage from the portrait being rolled, the restorer certainly added their own preferences to ‘sweeten’ her face. I hope I’ve done Diana justice by removing those additions and presenting her natural face to the world.”

The full-length portrait of Diana, Countess of Oxford and Elgin, after conservation. Photo: © English Heritage

Diana, née Cecil, (1596–1654) was a daughter of the 2nd Earl of Exeter and great-granddaughter of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, one of Elizabeth I’s closest friends and advisers. The Cecils remained a powerful family at the Stuart court where Diana was celebrated for her dark good looks.

The poet Edward Herbert praised Diana as “Wonder of all thy Sex!” and wrote of her:

Diana Cecyll, that rare beauty thou dost show
Is not of Milk, or Snow,
Or such as pale and whitely things do ow.
But an illustrious Oriental Bright,
Like to the Diamonds refracted light,
Or early morning breaking from the Night.


It was reported in 1619 that Lady Hatton, Diana’s aunt, hoped the eligible noblewoman might catch the eye of James I’s favourite, the Duke of Buckingham. That wasn’t to be, but she married two powerful men. First, in 1624, she wed Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford, bringing a marriage portion of £30,000. Oxford died a year later, on a military campaign in the Netherlands. In 1629 she married Scottish nobleman and widower Thomas, Lord Bruce, later the 1st Earl of Elgin.

The revitalised full-length portrait of Diana will hang at Kenwood alongside one of her second husband that was conserved around 20 years ago. Both are by Cornelius Johnson, who was a popular society artist of the era. Tate-Harte said: “Diana had been in our sights for conservation for a while and eventually made it to the top of the list . . . She had flaking paint and very yellow varnish and was looking a bit poor next to her husband, as well as having structural issues. There was a lot of loss of original paint and our technical analysis helped us to understand how damaged she was. We wanted to carefully take off all those layers of later varnish and overpaint that effectively blocked the original paint layers. It was almost like a 19th-century painting.”

She believes the painting was touched up on two or three occasions and that the big changes to Diana’s facial features — akin to modern photoshopping or social media filters — were made around the Victorian period. In a press release, English Heritage said this retouching illustrates changing beauty ideals and how the trend for fuller lips, exemplified by celebrities such as socialite Kylie Jenner, is hardly a new phenomenon.

The other Kenwood portrait of Diana Cecil, dated to circa 1615, and by William Larkin. Photo: © English Heritage

Among her discoveries during conservation, Tate-Harte found the original date, 1634, and the artist’s signature. The portrait had previously been tentatively dated to around 1638. She said: “It is confounding because we believe the portrait of her husband by Johnson was painted around 1638, and normally the man would have been painted first and the woman afterwards.”

Kenwood House has two portraits of Diana. In addition to the Johnson, painted when she was about 31, there is one by William Larkin, showing her aged around 15 and new to the marriage market. In the earlier portrait, she wears an elaborate white satin dress detailed in gold and extensively slashed to reveal the yellow silk lining.

In the later portrait, her blue satin dress shows a more understated elegance. By the 1630s, elite women’s fashion was characterised by dresses of plain silk, satin or taffeta with one or two focal points, such as the red ribbons laced across Diana’s bodice, the matching rose at her breast, and the patterned fan that she holds half-open.

The countess lived through turbulent times. In spite of the couple’s connections at court, Lord Elgin took Parliament’s side in the Civil War. She predeceased him, dying in 1654, aged 58, during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. She was buried by her husband in a splendid tomb in the Ailesbury Mausoleum at Maulden in Bedfordshire.

One verse of her epitaph, translated from Latin, states:

Round her the Virtues of the Cecils shone,
But with Inferior Brightness to her own;
Which she refin’d to that sublime Degree,
The greatest Mortal could not greater be.

Eulogies aside, can we know much about Diana’s personality? Tate-Harte said: “Sadly, not. This is often the case with women, up till very recently. We talk about their marriages because they were effectively bought and sold at marriage, and it is the husband’s story that is told. She was painted many times and those paintings chart her appearance as she ages. So her lips in the Kenwood Larkin [portrait] are quite full, almost a Cupid’s bow. Then she has aged a little by our our Johnson painting. But there are other paintings held by the National Trust and a private collection. You can infer what you like of her personality from looking at those portraits.”

Both paintings of Diana at Kenwood are part of the Suffolk Collection, which was put together over 400 years by generations of earls of Suffolk and Berkshire. The connection to the Elgins is through Diana’s sister, Elizabeth, who married Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Berkshire. The collection was was given to the nation in 1974 through the will of Daisy Howard, 19th Countess of Suffolk.

Explaining how the conservation of Diana’s portrait fits into English Heritage’s broader programme, Tate-Harte said: “Because we care for paintings all over the country, from Hadrian’s Wall down to the south coast, we carry out a regular condition audit. So we go out every five years and look at paintings up a ladder with a torch to check their condition. Paintings get a condition score and anything that scores three or four goes on our list for things to be treated. We either treat them on site or they come to the studio.”

“This one came in a while ago for the full treatment, during Covid. So progress was slower than usual and she is finally ready to go back on display.”

The newly conserved painting of Diana Cecil will go on display at Kenwood, an English Heritage site on the edge of Hampstead Heath that is free to visit, on November 30.

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