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A masterpiece by Thomas Gainsborough has returned to the walls of the National Gallery less than a fortnight after it was damaged by a member of the public with a screwdriver.
Repairs to “Mr and Mrs William Hallett” — commonly known as “The Morning Walk” — took just 10 days after the gallery’s conservation team, led by Paul Ackroyd, worked long hours to conceal two long scratches sustained in the March 18 attack.
Larry Keith, the National Gallery’s head of conservation, said the retouching work was “a superb example of craft” by the conservators, who brought the 1785 painting back to its former visible condition.
“If you were in the gallery now looking at this picture you’d be able to appreciate it at least as well as before, with no evidence of damage,” he said.
The informal “conversation piece” by the leading portraitist of the late 18th century shows the 21-year-old William Hallett and Elizabeth Stephen — who were married shortly after the painting’s completion — walking through a wooded landscape, a dog at her heel.
Gainsborough’s feathery brushwork, blending Hallett’s hair and Stephen’s shawl into their leafy surroundings, was typical of the style he adopted later in his career, the gallery said.
The team was lucky that the damage had not gone through the canvas, which would have required a more involved structural repair job. But the restoration went further than matching the colours of the surrounding paint: Mr Ackroyd mimicked the relief or texture of the paintwork, even recreating the tiny fissures or “craquelure” that appear on oil canvases over many years.
Mr Keith said the presence of craquelure was “quite fortuitous” in terms of making a perfect retouching.
“When there’s more going on in terms of texture, pattern and design, it’s easier for the eye to go over the damage,” he said.
The conservators were happy to use synthetic pigments and modern varnish that are plainly visible under ultraviolet light, rather than seek original equivalents, the gallery said.
“We faithfully copy the optics of Old Master paintings,” Mr Keith said. “That’s how we judge it to be successful.”
The room was closed for two hours on March 18 after a gallery assistant, with the help of members of the public, apprehended a man. Keith Gregory, of no fixed address, has been charged with causing criminal damage to the work.
Susan Foister, deputy director of the National Gallery, declined to say if the gallery had changed any of its procedures as a result of the incident but said its protocols were “always under review”.
Mr Ackroyd was part of the team that restored a damaged work by French 17th century artist Nicolas Poussin in 2011, when a member of the public sprayed his “Adoration of the Golden Calf” (1634) with a canister of red paint.