See a 17th-Century Portrait Restored to Its Original Appearance, Minus Lip Fillers and Other Touch-Ups

Conservators removed cosmetic changes made to a painting of English aristocrat Diana Cecil, likely to match 19th-century beauty standards

Diana Cecil
Alice Tate-Harte, a conservator at English Heritage, works on a 17th-century portrait of Diana Cecil. Christopher Ison / English Heritage

The idea of airbrushing or filtering a selfie might seem modern, but new conservation work conducted on a 17th-century painting underscores the fact that adding beauty enhancements to one’s likeness is a well-worn tradition.

Conservators assessing a portrait of Diana Cecil, an English noblewoman who belonged to a powerful family at the Jacobean court, found that a later artist, perhaps in the 19th century, plumped up her lips and added more curls to her hairline to make her forehead seem smaller, reports Constance Kampfner for the London Times.

“Think Kylie Jenner’s penchant for fuller lips reflects a modern beauty phenomenon? Think again!” says English Heritage, the charity that conducted the conservation, in a statement.

Cecil was the great-granddaughter of William Cecil, First Baron Burghley, a close friend and adviser of Tudor queen Elizabeth I. She lived from 1596 to 1654 and was hailed as “one of the great beauties of the age,” according to the statement.

Diana Cecil Painting before and after
Diana Cecil's portrait before (left) and after (right) conservation English Heritage

Still, as the ages change, so do beauty standards, and Cecil’s reputation as a natural stunner may not have aligned with the tastes of later generations. Long after Cornelius Johnson painted Cecil’s likeness, another artist altered her appearance.

When English Heritage began conserving Cecil’s portrait, it was significantly damaged. Someone had rolled the canvas widthways, possibly prompting the cosmetic alterations as part of an effort to cover up the damage. What’s more, a layer of varnish had settled over the painting’s surface.

“I am often amazed by the vivid and rich colors that reveal themselves as I remove old, yellowing varnish from portraits,” says Alice Tate-Harte, English Heritage’s collections conservator, in the statement. “But finding out Diana’s features had been changed so much was certainly a surprise.”

In addition to restoring Cecil’s original visage, the conservation work uncovered the exact year that Johnson created the painting. The signature of the artist and the date 1634 (four years earlier than originally thought) were hidden under varnish on the curtain at the top of the painting.

Cecil’s portrait is far from the only one to undergo changes to match more recent beauty standards. A 16th-century portrait of Isabella de’ Medici, a noblewoman whose husband may have killed her for having an illicit affair with his cousin, was so thoroughly changed that experts initially misidentified it as a painting of her mother, Eleanor of Toledo. Later, staff at the Carnegie Museum of Art suspected the portrait was a fake, so they conducted a radiological analysis to be sure.

Behind the Scenes: The Restoration of Isabella de' Medici

“Something about the saccharine smirk, flawless complexion, sculpted nose and perfectly tapered chin, depicted in the work as it originally came to the museum in 1978, just didn’t ring true,” writes BBC Culture’s Kelly Grovier. But what many presumed to be a fake turned out to be a genuine likeness.

Grovier adds, “What stared back from the X-rays was someone else entirely—a far more convincing face of an older, wearier woman with peaky skin, a slightly hooked nose, circles under her eyes, [a] double chin and hammy hands. In other words, a real person.”

Cecil’s portrait wasn’t as radically altered as Medici’s, but both demonstrate the potential follies of overcorrecting someone’s likeness.

“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,” says Tate-Harte in the statement. “I hope I’ve done Diana justice by removing those additions and presenting her natural face to the world.”

The newly conserved portrait of Cecil is now on view at Kenwood House in London, where it hangs next to a likeness of the noblewoman’s second husband, Thomas Bruce, First Earl of Elgin.

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