New research on wax portraits

Recently, the museum has had to the remarkable privilege of restoring, conserving, and researching some extraordinary wax portraits. No, we’re not talking about candles here. These are full-sized portrait busts from the 16th and 17th century, ornately decorated, gilded, and painted to showcase their sitters’ remarkable features.

Why make a wax portrait?

Why wax portraits, and not marble, bronze, or the ever-popular oil portrait? Well, wax has a flesh-like translucency and weight that many other mediums lack, which meant artists could create realistic imitations of life at a low cost. Wax was used commonly in human portraiture cameos, three-dimensional busts and votive, and high-relief “portrait” plaques, as seen here.

Colour photograph of a circular wax portrait  of a lady in a red dress with a black cloak and hat
Wax portrait of an Unidentified Lady

Was wax an unwise choice?

We don’t see more of these unique examples of facial preservation simply because of the nature of the material itself. Predictably, wax is highly susceptible to heat, making their care and keeping highly difficult. Not only that, wax itself tends not to play nicely with bonding agents, especially the archaic adhesives of the past. Simply put, they are constantly trying to escape the confines of their frames and backings. This means few survive today.

Conserving RAMM’s wax portraits

Modern technology, delicate research, experimentation, and hard work on RAMM’s conservation department’s part has changed the fate for several waxworks in particular. With over forty hours of work put into a single portrait in some cases, these sculptures have been brought back to their former glory as representations of an era of replication gone by. I received these works with little more than a sitter’s name and a wish, with the hopes of uncovering a few secrets about each. Some were as simple as divulging the histories of Thomas Paine and King William the IV. Others, however, were shrouded in mystery. Some involved delving deep into family trees to establish just which of the four “Lord Holland”s named in the portrait’s description was actually the subject. The Whig Party member’s signature wig gave it away.

Sketch of Portrait Plaque of Thomas Paine, rendered in ink by conservation assistant Marina B. Gibbons, 2015
Sketch of Portrait Plaque of Thomas Paine, rendered in ink by conservation assistant Marina B. Gibbons, 2015

Other secrets, like the sculptor of this handful of wax figures, were more difficult to discover. Who knew there were two un-related men with the surname Percy living in Dublin and moulding with wax at the same time? The detective work, however is what keeps adventures in research exciting. An afternoon with some encyclopaedias will do a Collection’s assistant a world of good. And it keeps wanted artists, like suspected wax sculptors, locked away in the database where they belong.

Guest blog by Megan Wolf, placement student from the University of Leicester’s Art, Museum and Gallery Studies Masters programme.

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  1. I have an 18th century wax portrait and I’ve been searching for opinion with what (if anything!!) should be done to restore or conserve it. If anyone still checks this email please drop me a line, thanks!

  2. I work as a guide at Sudeley Castle – and wondered if any of you’d seen the remarkable collection of Samuel Percy portraits here? (Eight on display). Fascinating!

    Winchcombe near Cheltenham is not so far from Leicester so thought you might be interested.

    Kind regards


    • Oh how lovely, Sue. No I haven’t seen them. I’ll be sure to pay a visit next time I’m Winchcombe way.


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