Gainsborough Portrait of Haberdasher Clerk Undergoes Stunning Restoration

The Haberdashers' Company commissioned this portrait of our then Clerk, Jerome Knapp, in 1787 and it has hung in a Haberdashers' Hall ever since.


Knapp (1722-1792), was Clerk from 1754 until 1790, and the positive impact of his administrative work continues to be felt to this day in the Company’s support of charitable causes. While he was still Clerk, it was decided during a meeting of the Company’s Court of Assistants in 1786 to commission a portrait of Knapp ‘in commemoration of such great and eminent services’. The portrait was to hang in the Hall. The portraitist Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), who was already established as a highly sought-after portraitist, was chosen as ‘a proper person’ to paint the portrait, and the Company even extended its original budget in order to meet Gainsborough’s commission. The portrait was completed in September 1787, and placed in a frame which had been purchased from the carver William Flaxman. A few months before it was finished, the portrait was declared to be ‘excellent in all its qualities, - and will be a charming ornament to the City-Hall in which it is to be fixed’.

The painting features an inscription which reads: ‘This portrait of Jerome Knapp Esqr: Clerk to the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers was first proposed by Mr: Joseph Malpas and seconded by Jno: Pardon Esqr: two worthy Members: and unanimously agreed to, at a Court of Assistants held Nov. 16:1786, in Rememberance of his Great and faithful Services, during 32 years. — Sir Benj. Hammet Kt: & Alderman, Then Master Painted by Thos: Gainsborough R:A”. The inscription has an interesting back story too: it was recorded in September 1787 to have been added on instruction from Mr Joseph Malpas without consent from the sitter, artist or Hall. It was decided by the Court that the inscription should be painted over, and the painting was returned to Gainsborough’s studio so that the artist could paint over it. However, when the portrait was cleaned in the 1910s, the inscription was revealed, and is visible to this day.

Hugh Belsey, the author of the catalogue raisonné of Gainsborough works and formerly director of Gainsborough’s House for over two decades, writes that ‘to this day the portrait remains one of the Company’s greatest treasures’, and is an excellent late example of Gainsborough’s work for an institution. The painting is listed in Hugh Belsey’s catalogue raisonné under the catalogue number 553.

We know that the painting had to be rescued from the Hall when there was a fire in 1864, it may be in the aftermath of fire damage that the original Flaxman frame was replaced by a plainer moulding.

In 1915 someone wrote about the portrait that ‘many years ago it was described by a writer in the Art Journal as " repulsive in appearance from coats of discoloured varnish."‘

The portrait was treated in 1914, when it underwent cleaning. The cleaning methods and materials used appear to have been overly harsh and have abraded the surface of the paint film, causing the canvas texture beneath to become visible, resulting in a loss of detail in the composition. To cover up the abrasions, thick paint was then artistically applied, unnecessarily covering original paint. With the artist’s expressive confident brushstrokes thus concealed, the picture no longer looked like it had been painted by Gainsborough.

The original canvas has also been lined in the past, a process where a supporting canvas is adhered to the reverse of the original which had a number of small rips and damages.

Since 1915, the picture has accrued a substantial layer of dirt and dust, as is normal for any unglazed picture on display in London, and the varnishes have discoloured and dulled, making the picture difficult to view.

In 2019, on the recommendation of Hugh Belsey, eminent Art HIstorian Simon Gillespie was invited by our Archivist, Dr David Bartle, to view the picture and discuss possible conservation treatment.

With a treatment plan agreed, the picture was taken to Simon Gillespie Studio.

The picture was first dusted front and back using soft brushes and velvet to remove a thick layer of dust, then surface cleaned. After that, the task was to remove the thick, waxy-looking and relatively recent varnish. Beneath the varnish, there was extensive overpaint on the painting, covering old damages. Testing was carried out to find the safest and most effective method to remove the discoloured varnishes and old repaint. The cleaning process took almost 100 hours.

With all the later layers removed, the artist’s original brushstrokes were visible again for the first time in years, which was hugely exciting to witness. Although it had been through a fire and in spite of several damages, the quality of the portrait was undeniable. The tonality in the flesh of the sitter had returned, making the portrait seem much more lifelike and naturalistic; details of his costume emerged such as the pompoms on his cloak and a seal from his waist; and the background was much more convincing.

Hugh Belsey went to see the picture at the studio after treatment had been completed, and expressed his admiration at the quality revealed by the work done. Hugh said: “it is transformed and with all the overpaint removed the character of the sitter has returned. Details of the stance and the costume have been revealed which give the portrait much more energy and show Gainsborough's characteristic handling of paint. […] I am so pleased the Council decided to go ahead with the full conservation job and that they can feel justly proud of result. […] I am only sorry that the illustration in my catalogue is now out of date!”

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