Restored painting a significant addition to charity’s collection

Following an extensive period of cleaning by a renowned art expert, the Rochester Bridge Trust has taken receipt of an historically significant painting by 18th century artist John Woolaston.

The portrait shows John Thorpe, who twice served as the Trust’s Senior Warden and was responsible for transforming the charity into the institution it is today.

Born in Kent and educated at Oxford, for many years John Thorpe was a tenant of the Trust, living and running his medical practice at 91 High Street, Rochester. Then in 1731 he joined the Court of Wardens and Assistants of the Rochester Bridge Trust, serving as Junior Warden in 1746 and Senior Warden in 1733 and 1742.

Under his leadership the Committee of Assistants was created to meet weekly to discuss the business of the bridge; new rules were devised for the granting of leases; the bridge accounts and minute books were gathered together and bound in leather; staves of office and a set of walnut chairs inlaid with the coat of arms were purchased. Thorpe also researched and published books and gathered together the early statutes and petitions to parliament about the Trust, and designed the organisation’s first coat of arms.

Today, he is primarily remembered as the author of Registrum Roffense – “A collection of ancient records, charters, and instruments of divers kinds: necessary for illustrating the ecclesiastical history and antiquities of the diocese and cathedral church of Rochester”.

Bridge Archivist James Gibson commented: “Many names are recorded in the Trust’s history over the centuries, but few stand out as much as John Thorpe’s. His dedication to the organisation and his success in reorganising the working practices of the Wardens have had a lasting impact on the organisation that can still be felt today.

“The purchase and restoration of this painting is a significant addition to the documents and images recording the Rochester Bridge Trust’s substantial history.”

The painting was purchased earlier this year but immediately sent for cleaning by Accredited painting conservator Sarah Cove ACR, who has carried out several restorations for the Trust.

During her work, Sarah uncovered a slight change made by the artist, to the position of both of the subject’s hands. Her study also revealed discrepancies in previous cleanings, as well as abrasion and large areas of crude re-touching.

Sarah explained: “The painting was generally in good condition, but had large areas of mismatched re-touching. For example, a previous restoration appears to have only dealt with the face, linen and a few areas of costume, with the background looking like it has never been cleaned, and the books barely visible.

“During my work, I carried out measures to clean the surface, remove overpainting, and improved the tension of the canvas. The frame was also cleaned and re-gilt to more sympathetically match the style of the painting. It was a pleasure to work on this painting which holds such importance for the Rochester Bridge Trust.”

Sarah Cove is one of the country’s leading experts on the paintings of John Constable RA. She will be appearing in the BBC television show Fake or Fortune? on Sunday, 20th August, at 7.05pm.