Conserving Paintings and Pasts
at the Guildhall

15 Apr 2021

Polly Saltmarsh is an accredited paintings conservator who facilitates the restoration of works in oil on canvas and panel from 16th century up to the present day. Her private studio in Cambridge, Saltmarsh Paintings Conservation, has collaborated with many institutions, including the National Trust, Church of England and Kettle’s Yard, and has recently worked with the Guildhall in reviving one of the historic paintings housed there. The 17th century portrait of Thomas Bright the Younger has survived many years and thanks to Polly and her conservation treatment will now survive many more.

“It is a real privilege to work so closely with paintings, you see every brushstroke and get an understanding of the process the artist
went through to create the piece.”

Before undertaking practical work on the portrait, Polly Saltmarsh examined its condition in thorough detail. She noted signs of deterioration in terms of both the structure and the paint itself, including a failed panel join, flaking and abraded paint, splitting panel edges and discoloured varnish. Her meticulous inspection of the work brought to light the long history of the painting’s materiality as old tool marks and repairs became visible. Polly even noticed that animal glue had once been used to attach large patches of canvas!

With the help of paintings conservator Ulla-Satu Grimmett, Polly began conservation treatment that aimed to ensure the stability and improve the appearance of the painting, without concealing its age. This involved finding a suitable solvent mixture to remove the thick and grainy veil of varnish that covered the portrait, cleaning and repairing the splits and joins in the panels and filling losses to the paint with putty made from mowiol and chalk. 


“It is always a pleasure working for the Guildhall, the building has a fascinating history and the collection of artworks reflects this.”

By revealing and retouching the original paint layer, the figure stood out from the background and hidden details, like the buttons in the black robe, became apparent. For Polly, this act of returning a painting close to what the artist intended is what makes her job so rewarding.

The portrait of Thomas Bright the Younger dates to 1624 and has hung in the Guildhall, along with a portrait of Thomas Bright the Elder, ever since. The sitter was a prominent member of the Guildhall Feoffees and held the office of alderman or chief magistrate of Bury St. Edmunds like his father. Between 1600 and 1601, Bright led a meeting that involved notable townspeople in which they agreed to share the costs of petitioning the crown for a grant of incorporation and was mentioned as burgess in the first charter granted by James I to Bury in 1606. Instrumental in obtaining this charter, Thomas Bright the Younger remains a key figure in not only the fabric of the Guildhall but of the history of Bury St. Edmunds. His portrait, and its conservation, is therefore important to local heritage.

Taking over 80 hours to complete, the conservation treatment was a long process that was made longer by the pandemic. The result, however, has been extraordinary, with the painting becoming more cohesive, legible and alluring through the conservator’s work. With a responsibility to make the artwork stable and look good without disguising the fact it has an age and history to it, Polly certainly found this balance. Through her wonderful work on the portrait of Thomas Bright the Younger, Polly preserved its history whilst ensuring its longevity. We hope you will come and see the portrait in person when our doors reopen this summer!