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Mystery over Historic Paintings of Leith - restoration project highlights differences in seascapes

10 April 2008

Questions have been raised over whether a pair of oil paintings showing the port of Leith in its heyday are by the same artist. The works of art, entitled Port of Leith and A View of the Port of Leith with Arthur’s Seat in the Distance, have long been attributed to Edinburgh artist A Mitchell. A restoration project by experts at the Historic Scotland Conservation Centre (HSCC), Stenhouse, suggests that a different and unknown artist may have been responsible for the second picture.

Ray Hemmett, Historic Scotland senior paintings conservator, said:

“These are lovely paintings which show the port at its height towards the end of the 19th century, full of steam ships and sailing vessels of the kind that arrived there from all over the world. They have previously been regarded as a pair because they are alike in many ways, have similar themes and appear to be from around the same time. But our conservation team now believe they may have different origins after carrying out a long and detailed programme of cleaning and restoration.

“While Port of Leith is signed and dated, its partner is not and there are clear stylistic differences between the two. The most noticeable is that the figures in the anonymous painting are much better developed than those on the signed one.”

Visitors have the chance to decide whether they think the paintings are by different artists as they go back on display at Trinity House maritime museum in Leith.

The conservators at the HSCC have used the latest techniques to clean and restore the pictures and their frames.

Robert Wilmot, HSCC manager, said:

“We are fortunate to have some of the finest conservation experts in the country and they have done a tremendous job with these paintings. They now look almost as sharp and vivid as when they were first hung around 125 years ago. We very much hope that our visitors will be able to enjoy them to the full for many decades to come.”

One element of the project involved removing varnish from the surface which had become discoloured over the years, making the paintings less clear and darker. Part of this process was carried out by Kirsten Stromberg, a student fine art conservator from the University of Northumbria. Ms Stromberg was on a short-term placement as part of Historic Scotland’s internship programme which is designed to help develop conservation skills.

Notes for editors

  • Trinity House is at 99, Kirkgate, Leith, and holds an important collection that reflects Leith’s long maritime history. Telephone 0131 653 733.

  • All visits must be bookedin advance. Tickets are £4.20 for adults, £3.20 concessions and £2.10 children.

  • A Mitchell was born in Edinburgh around 1830 and trained at the Trustees Academy between 1848 and 1850. He was primarily a portrait painter but often painted land and seascapes as well. Other examples of his work can be found in the Edinburgh City Art Collection.

  • The two paintings were donated to Trinity House in the 1950s by Captain J R Taylor, from the collection of his father Baille Taylor, OBE, JP. Captain Taylor was Master Member of Trinity House from 1947 to 1958. The collections at Trinity House are in the care of the Historic Scotland Foundation.

  • The restoration work included the removal of varnish and the application of a new layer – which helps protect the paint. Other treatments were used to stabilise the paintings and prevent or slow deterioration. The backs were also strengthened. Extensive work was also done on the frames. Both paintings were also photographed and documented in detail. The entire project involved contributions from a team of three highly skilled experts.

  • Trinity House is cared for by Historic Scotland which opens it to the public as a maritime museum. It is, however, also the headquarters of the Incorporation of Masters and Mariners of Trinity House, Leith, a guild which dates to 1380.

  • In 2006 Historic Scotland purchased six paintings, including four by Sir Henry Raeburn, from the Incorporation of Masters and Mariners to secure them for the nation. Among them was a portrait of Admiral Duncan, who led the British fleet to victory against the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797.

  • The incorporation is a charitable organisation which once provided pensions for large numbers of mariners who paid into a fund throughout their working lives but now has just a small number of active members. In its heyday it looked after the lights in the Firth of Forth and licensed the pilots who guided shipping into its ports.

  • Historic Scotland has 345 outstanding historic properties and sites in its care. These include some of the leading tourism attractions in the country, including Edinburgh, Stirling, and Urquhart castles, Fort George, Linlithgow Palace, the Border Abbeys and Skara Brae.

  • Historic Scotland’s mission is to safeguard Scotland’s historic environment and to promote its understanding and enjoyment.

For further information

Laura Adamson
PR Executive
Marketing and Media
0131 668 8959 or 07769 630 763