Technique and condition

The painting is in oils on plain-woven, stretched linen canvas. This has two layers of oil priming, the lower a dark greeny-grey, the upper a lighter warm grey. The densely painted image reveals no trace of linear underdrawing; but a hint of Ramsay's red underpainting is visible with the naked eye in Baron Mansel's face. Examination with a stereo-microscope shows that all the faces in this picture are underpainted in shades of red. In the late seventeen-thirties Vertue noted that Ramsay, '...accustoms himself to draw the faces in red lines, shades etc., finishing the likeness in... red colour... before he puts on the flesh colour...' (G. Vertue, Notebook III, Walpole Society XXII, 1934, p.91). It was a technique Ramsay had learned during his two-year period with painters in Italy, and its novelty in England appears to have helped establish him as a successful portrait painter, even though, as Vertue went on to say, '...when the faces are painted... over, little or nothing of that first red can be seen' (Vertue, 1934, p.91). In this painting the tendency of thin oil paint to become more translucent with time has made it more apparent in the shadows of Margam's face.

The paint structure in the rest of the figures varies more. The coat of the little boy on the far left, for example, was modelled first in shades of opaque dull green before being scumbled over in pink and red so that it would read as a shot fabric. The girl's grey frock appears to have been painted in one layer only, all the tonal modulations being done wet-in-wet. Margam's green coat was painted first in an opaque dull green before being worked up in the brighter mixtures we see. Where there are two layers in this picture, it would seem that the underlayer was at least touch dry before being painted over; and no intermediate layers of varnish or oil are visible in cross-sections. The sky and landscape were done in one layer, wet-in-wet. The smooth brushwork on the faces with a few traces of hatching-marks is very characteristic of Ramsay's work in this period.

The painting is in very good condition. It was cleaned before acquisition and has only localized, very minor areas of retouching. The varnish is a modern, synthetic resin. The stretcher, which is adjustable at the inner corners and at the diagonal corner braces, probably dates from the early to mid nineteenth century. It is possible that the glue lining is contemporary with it.

Rica Jones
1996