Curators inspect one of Michael Dahl’s paintings in the Beauty Room at Petworth House, West Sussex

Curators inspect one of Michael Dahl’s paintings in the Beauty Room at Petworth House, West Sussex

© National Trust, photo: Rah Petherbridge

‘I will cut off their legs, I do not want their petticoats.’ With these words, the third Earl of Egremont sealed an unusual fate for the Petworth ‘Beauties’.

The ‘Beauties’, a series of portraits by Michael Dahl, were painted at full length in the 1690s. But in the 1820s the Earl wanted to display more pictures in the Beauty Room at Petworth House in West Sussex, and so the legs were lost. Or so everyone believed.

In 1995, the National Trust discovered the sliced bottoms of the canvases – not lost, but reattached to the lining and folded behind the pictures. The find prompted lots of questions: Why were the legs saved? Should the ‘Beauties’ be restored?

Fast-forward to 2018 (when I learned about the story) because Tate Britain wanted to exhibit two of the eight ‘Beauties’, returned to full length. Condition reports were dug out and conservators examined the works afresh.

When I first saw one of the ‘Beauties’ out of its frame, I was struck by the artist’s skill. Usually displayed high on the wall, the portrait became instantly engaging face to face, coolly meeting my gaze. The legs seemed to have survived in a decent state and, following research by Tate Britain and the National Trust that reiterated the paintings’ significance, the decision was taken to restore the two ‘Beauties’.

A conservator restoring Michael Dahl’s portrait Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire c1696

A conservator restoring Michael Dahl’s portrait Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire c1696

© National Trust, photo: Rah Petherbridge

In June, they were delivered to the Croydon studio of J Dimond Conservation Limited, and work started on the picture of the Duchess of Devonshire. The folded section was untacked, the lining carefully divided, and the two bits of canvas placed side by side, showing the painting whole again for the first time in nearly two centuries.

Layers (upon layers) of varnish are now being removed, revealing the colours in all their vibrancy. The join will get particular attention, and the pictures will be relined and given new stretchers. It will then be up to you to ponder their ‘beauty’.

Lady Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormond and Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire are included in the exhibition British Baroque: Power and Illusion, Tate Britain, 5 February – 19 April 2020. The remaining ‘Beauties’ can also be seen in their original room at Petworth House, West Sussex.

Richard Ashbourne is Assistant Curator (London and South East), National Trust.