Portraits need restoration

TWO of the most significant portraits related to the history of Londonderry are in need of some much-needed restoration work, according to the Dean of St Columb's Cathedral.

The companion portraits of William Alexander and his hymn-writing wife, Cecil Frances, which hang opposite each other in the foyer of the Deanery on Bishop Street within, bear more than just a few battle scars - thanks to the Troubles - and need a thorough cleaning and restoration.

It is a project that lies close to the heart of the current incumbent of the Deanery, Rev Dr William Morton, who this week confessed that he would very much love to see them restored and cleaned.

The portraits are extremely large and were commissioned from Charles Napier Kennedy (1852 to 1898) a short time before the death of Cecil Frances.

A renowned portrait painter who also specialised in genre and mythological themes, he studied at the Slade School and at University College under E J Poynter, who influenced his work. Exhibited at the Royal Academy and elsewhere, his work is still collected. His wife was also a painter.

Sadly the funding to restore the Deanery companion portraits isn’t available at the moment and the Dean’s focus is very much on improving the lot of the City’s greatest treasure - the Cathedral itself.

William Alexander was Bishop here from 1867 to 1896 and the Dean is very fond of the portraits in his custody.

“These portraits are unusual not least because of their size, for one thing,” he says, rocking back on his heels to look up at them, adding: “They were painted the year before Mrs Alexander died. She died in October 1985.”

“Kennedy painted both of them in 1894. There was a family connection which I recall discovering between him and the Alexanders. There was some family connection, through marriage.

“They have been damaged, the Bishop‘s one more than Mrs Alexander’s, largely from bomb damage during the Troubles which resulted in the loss of the glass in the window light above the front door, which damaged the portrait and the frame. As you can see there is a lot of pitting and damage from flying objects,” he said.

“We are very much interested in getting them restored, but with the priority of the Cathedral restoration at the moment, it’s just not a possibility to focus on this. Maybe if we had the Cathedral done, and thankfully, the Cathedral School has been taken care of by the Cresco Trust, but maybe in a few years when the heart of the Cathedral is done, then we will try and do something with these,” he said.

The Dean highlights a small area low down on the portrait of Mrs Alexander, saying: “Somebody once did a test clean here, just to see how they might come up, and you can see this small patch. Apparently the detail in this painting is phenomenal. Someone who saw the portrait a long number of years ago told us the detail is so good that you can actually see what she is crocheting. Apparently if that were professionally, authentically cleaned and restored that the difference in it would be absolutely staggering.”

Dean Morton said that despite the portraits’ state of need, it is still obvious that the portraits were painted with the couple posing for them in the Bishop’s Palace across the street.

“It would be very interesting to try and get them done, and it would also be interesting to find out more about the artist, Kennedy, to see what else he painted,” he said.