Edward Wilson Portrait Restoration

Hannah Dale, College Archivist

Celebrating a portrait of an OC, painted by an OC and his son, and restored thanks to the generous donation of an OC.


The painting

Edward Adrian Wilson, M.B., who died with Captain Scott in the Antarctic about March 29th 1912 (Painted for Cheltenham College) isn’t the most promising sounding listing for Hugh G Rivière’s 1915 work exhibited at the Royal Academy but it nevertheless captured the spirit of the age. As it occurred to a horrified public that the Great War would not reach a swift conclusion but would grind on into 1916, the story of heroic deaths far from home gained a new resonance and, to a weary public, the mythology surrounding the doomed Terra Nova expedition was brought into sharp focus.

The painting was funded from subscribers of the Cheltonian Society ‘as a permanent record at Cheltenham College of the noble life and heroic death of Edward Adrian Wilson’ and was first unveiled on 18 September 1915 in what was then the Library of College, the room we now know as the Dining Hall. At the unveiling, Edward Wilson’s mother, Mary Wilson, thanked College and expressed how grateful the whole Wilson family was with the honour of having her son remembered at College, saying that ‘no memorial had pleased her and the family so much.’

Painted in oil on canvas, the portrait depicts Edward Adrian Wilson (Day Boy, 1886-1891) in his role as chief of the scientific staff and artist on his second and final Antarctic expedition. Wilson is dressed in Polar attire, standing against a loaded sledge with his sketchbook poised as he observes the frozen landscape. Accompanying him are a team of five resting Siberian huskies. It is an impressive size, 213cm x 204cm, in an ornate gilt frame with a carved leaf and flower design.


The artists

The portrait was painted by Hugh Goldwin Rivière, with his father Briton Rivière. Hugh Rivière was a portrait painter who was elected to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. He painted Wilson’s portrait from the close study of photographs.

Briton Rivière (Day Boy, 1849-1858), was the son of the College Drawing Master (1850-58), William Rivière. He became a Royal Academician and devoted much of his life to the painting of animals. Briton Rivière had been invited by College to undertake the commission. Although he did not feel he could do so in his advancing years, two of the dogs, including the husky in direct portrait, were by his brush.


The restoration

In summer 2023, the painting was carefully removed from where it had been hanging in the College Common Room and carried to the Cadbury Room, where a team of two specialist Painting Conservator-Restorers, Pippa Jefferies and Stewart Meese, spent several weeks painstakingly restoring it.

(Image above caption: Experts Pippa Jefferies and Stewart Meese restored the portrait and frame over several weeks in the summer 2023)

After initially carrying out a series of tests to establish the appropriate cleaning agent and organic solvents to use, Pippa and Stewart have undertaken fixation of flaking paint, surface cleaning of both the reverse of the painting and the painted surface, varnish removal, filling of small paint losses and inpainting with Paraloid B72 medium and powder pigments, and brush varnishing with low molecular weight resin varnish.

The frame has had a thorough clean to remove ingrained dirt in the hollows and undercuts on the carving as well as an application of gesso followed by gold leaf to the losses of gilding.

We are extremely grateful to Sir Michael McWilliam (Cheltondale, 1952) for his generous donation that allowed this restoration to happen. This timely intervention will allow Wilson’s portrait to continue to inspire Cheltonians for years to come.

(Image above caption: Sir Michael visited College to see the restoration in progress)

On 24 September, the restored portrait was unveiled in its new location in the Chatfeild-Roberts Library. There, it can be appreciated by many more people and from a more appropriate viewing angle and distance.