Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Nadia Khomami Arts and culture correspondent

Conservators remove ‘Kylie Jenner treatment’ from 17th-century portrait

The portrait of Diana Cecil after conservators had removed the overpainting that had hidden her features as originally painted.
The portrait of Diana Cecil after conservators had removed the overpainting that had hidden her features as originally painted. Photograph: Christopher Ison/English Heritage

If you think the influencer’s penchant for big lips reflects a modern beauty fad, then think again.

According to English Heritage, a painting within the charity’s collection of a Jacobean “beauty” has been found to have received the so-called “Kylie Jenner treatment” – with touch-ups involving plumping the sitter’s lips and lowering her hairline.

Now, hours of painstaking conservation has revealed the true face of Diana Cecil, a 17th-century noblewoman, who was regarded as one of the great beauties of her time – but whose appearance had been changed for centuries.

Cecil, who lived from 1596 to 1654, was the great-granddaughter of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, one of Elizabeth I’s closest friends and advisers. Her family were very powerful nobles at the Jacobean court.

The work on her portrait, which goes on display at Kenwood, a neoclassical villa in London, on 30 November, shows a later artist had other ideas about the extent of Cecil’s beauty – and made alterations to her appearance sometime between the 17th and 19th century.

The portrait before the overpainting was removed, showing the sitter with plumped lips and a lower hairline.
The portrait before the overpainting was removed, showing the sitter with plumped lips and a lower hairline. Photograph: English Heritage

By removing a yellowing layer of old varnish, conservators found that Cecil’s lips had at some point been overpainted to make them appear fuller, while her hair was reworked to make her forehead appear smaller.

Kylie Jenner is the half-sister of media personality Kim Kardashian and the world’s youngest self-made billionaire thanks to her cosmetics brand. She is known for her cosmetic procedures, which some say have contributed to unrealistic modern beauty ideals.

English heritage said while the painting had been rolled widthways, which caused significant damage and may have resulted in the need for a touch-up, the overpainting of these features was a curious choice.

As a modern society with access to digital beauty filters and AI technology, we might think we know better than most eras the temptation to ‘perfect’ our appearance, but the conservation work to Diana Cecil has shown that this is not a new phenomenon,” said Louise Cooling, English Heritage’s curator at Kenwood.

English Heritage’s paintings expert Alice Tate-Harte looking at the portrait.
English Heritage’s paintings expert Alice Tate-Harte looks at the restored portrait. Photograph: Christopher Ison/English Heritage

“Arbitrary and ever-changing beauty standards do seem to echo through the ages, although in this case Diana had no say in the ‘improvements’ made to her portrait centuries after it was painted.”

In removing the varnish, another remarkable discovery was also made, hidden in the painting’s curtains – the date of the portrait was uncovered as 1634, as well as the original artist’s signature, that of Cornelius Johnson.

Alice Tate-Harte, collections conservator (fine art) at English Heritage, said: “As a paintings conservator I am often amazed by the vivid and rich colours that reveal themselves as I remove old, yellowing varnish from portraits, but finding out Diana’s features had been changed so much was certainly a surprise.

“While the original reason for overpainting could have been to cover damage from the portrait being rolled, the restorer certainly added their own preferences to ‘sweeten’ her face. I hope I’ve done Diana justice by removing these additions and presenting her natural face to the world.”

Kenwood is home to two portraits of Cecil – one painted by artist William Larkin when she was about 15, and this work by Johnson, painted when Cecil was about 31.

In the latter, Cecil wears a fashionable blue satin bodice and full, trailing skirt. In contrast to the earlier portrait, elite fashion is characterised by understated elegance, rather than opulently patterned fabric or complicated layering, English heritage said.

Plain silk, satin or taffeta were the height of fashion, with one or two focal points, such as the red ribbons laced across the front of Cecil’s bodice, holding the stomacher in place, and a matching red rose at her breast and a patterned fan, which she holds half-open in front of her.

Both paintings of Cecil are part of the Suffolk Collection, which was collected over a period of 400 years by generations of the earls of Suffolk and Berkshire (Diana’s sister, Elizabeth Cecil, married Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Berkshire. He was the second son of the 1st Earl and Countess of Suffolk).

Diana Cecil herself also married powerful men – first Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford, who died a year later, and then, in 1629, Lord Thomas Bruce, later 1st Earl of Elgin.

Full-length portraits were an established convention by the early 17th century and many members of the aristocracy were depicted on this scale.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.