I remember the first time that I saw this painting – in the castle of Schloss Marienburg, outside Hanover – in October 2005.  

Willem Wissing, 'Portrait of Henrietta and Mary Hyde' circa 1683-5

Willem Wissing
Portrait of Henrietta and Mary Hyde circa 1683-5
Oil on canvas
support: 1530 x 1120 mm
Purchased 2006

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I had travelled out to see it with my paintings conservator colleague, Rica Jones, in advance of the auction of a vast range of objects from the collection of the Dukes of Brunswick & Luneberg, the Hanover ruling family. The painting was in what is sometimes called ‘country house condition’ – which in this case meant that the varnish that covered it had turned a dark orange through the effects of time, smoke and dirt, and that there were streaks of bird dropping running down its surface. Its carved and gilded frame was in an extremely damaged and wood-wormed state. Nevertheless, it was clearly a beautiful painting, and by Willem Wissing, a short-lived Dutch incomer to Britain who was not then yet represented in the Tate collection, but who was high on our ‘desirables’ list. The following year, the Tate was able to buy the painting from the Richard Green gallery.

It depicts two very important little girls – they were daughters of Laurence Hyde, 1st Earl of Rochester (1642-1711). Hyde’s late sister Anne had married James, Duke of York, who became king James II in 1685, which may be the year in which this was painted. The girls were therefore cousins of James’s daughter, who became Queen Anne in 1702, and who we know (from old inventories) displayed the painting at Windsor Castle. It remained in the Royal Collection until 1819, after which it seems that George III’s controversial and unpopular son, the Duke of Cumberland, liked it so much that he took it away to Germany where he became the king of Hanover in 1837.

With the support of generous sponsors, the painting was cleaned here at Tate Britain by Susan Breen, who capably attended to the bird droppings, and removed the old unsightly varnish and replaced it with new. We momentarily considered discarding the frame, because its condition was so poor, until research indicated that it was probably made while the painting was in the British Royal Collection; Tate Head of Framing Gerry Alabone and his team brought it back almost from the dead.

For us today, this is a rather unsettling presentation of two little girls, both less than ten years old: Henrietta (left) was born in 1677, her sister Mary in 1679. They are shown dressed in low-fronted informal dress like adult women, and are set behind the fleshy red poppies (lower left) that often appear in Wissing’s portraits, and were probably painted by his Dutch studio collaborator Jan van der Vaart. Henrietta holds a (rather worried-looking) dove which, like the pink roses to the right, is symbolic of Venus, the goddess of love. In other words, the painting functions as an announcement that these little girls are on the marriage market (it is, however, reassuring to know that neither actually married until many years later).

Looking at this fine double portrait, which was magnificently brought back to life by Tate colleagues, I am aware that it’s not only the Dutch-born and -trained artist, Willem Wissing, who migrated, but also the portrait itself – painted in Britain in the 17th century, transported to Germany in the 19th century, and then again back to Britain in the 21st.