Technique and condition

William Robert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony has a support comprising of a single piece of medium-weight linen canvas. The support is attached to a seven member expandable wooden stretcher with steel tacks around its edges and rear and the stretcher and tacks are probably original. The canvas was purchased pre-primed so the priming layers extend to all edges of the fabric at the rear. The commercial priming has not been analysed but probably consists of a very thin layer of unpigmented animal glue size followed by at least one layer of an oil based primer of lead white pigment in linseed oil. The pigmented ground is lean in consistency and was also applied thinly, so that the canvas weave texture remains very apparent.

The paint is oil and was applied exclusively by brush. Most of the paint appears to have been thinned slightly with solvent and applied in a wet-on-dry technique, although in some areas a wet-in-wet style is seen. The number of layers used varies considerably across the painting from areas of a single application to the build up of several. However, in all areas the overall thickness of the paint was kept very low so that the canvas texture is still evident in most areas, although there is the occasional use of a slight impasto in some of the stronger brushstrokes, mainly seen in areas of flesh. Paints with a range of transparencies were used, although sometimes an opaque paint appears transparent due to the thinness of the layer. Most of the painting was executed in a very precise manner, although the areas of shading are much looser in style.

The painting is varnished but this is not original and there is a significant amount of repainting above it. When viewed under ultraviolet light the repaint shows up very clearly as dark areas. Most of it was applied to strengthen the painted lines around the figures and it can be concluded that the original paint in these areas is therefore rather worn, although the lines were possibly never intended to be so heavy. The varnish has yellowed slightly but still exhibits reasonable gloss and saturation. The current frame was made at the Tate in 1999. Its design was based on a non-original frame present on acquisition. It consists of a simple wooden batten frame, stained dark brown.

The painting is currently in very good structural condition. The canvas is adequately taut to provide support to the paint layers and the varnish and the frame offers good protection from the front. Aesthetically, the slight yellowness of the varnish is affecting the colours of the paints but at present the degree of yellowing is not that disturbing to the image.

Tom Learner
May 1998