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Restoration of the Wax Portrait of Prince Grigory Potemkin

The Numismatics Department of the State Hermitage possesses a unique collection of wax portraits that is unparalleled in other museums in this country. The task of preserving and restoring them is of exceptional importance.

The portrait of Prince Grigory Potemkin by Georg Heinrich Koenig came into the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Precious Metals in 2016. The relief was made from beeswax coloured with pigments and in certain places (the lips, eyebrows and eyes) there is probably also superficial tinting. The surface of the relief is badly soiled with dust deposits. Fragments of gilding and organic accretions are visible. The wax relief is attached to a glass support that has been tinted on the reverse side. The artist’s signature has been scratched into the tinting.

Wax objects are very sensitive to the conditions in which they are kept. If the permissible temperature is exceeded the surface begins to flow and finer details become deformed. Over the lifetime of the work, dust particles have penetrated into the material. These processes need to be prevented in the future. At low temperatures wax loses its plasticity and develops cracks. In this portrait, a deep crack runs across the neck and hair. The expansion of this crack and others may in future lead to parts of the relief coming loose and the loss of a unique work of art.

The large amount of soiling distorts the colour of the originally white wax. Cleaning the surface is an exceptionally difficult task as wax is affected by all chemical solvents and the use of water is also undesirable. Most probably each particle of dust will have to be removed by hand using special tools and a high-magnification microscope.

To restore the wax, it is proposed to create a special ultra-fine heated spatula with continuously adjustable temperature. The use of such a tool, again under a microscope, will make it possible to fill in the cracks in the wax and fasten loose elements without causing further damage.

The wax portrait is kept in its original case which also requires restoration. The four surviving pieces of glass have chips and cracks in them, while one piece has been lost. Traces of restoration are visible on the case. Parts of the fastenings for the glass have been lost and the remainder are not performing their function adequately. It seems likely that attempts were made to glue the pieces of glass in place, but that led to damage of other elements: the glass bears traces of loosened gilding. The losses of glass need to be made good and the existing pieces need to be properly fastened so as to prevent dust reaching the wax portrait.



The crack in the gilded wall within the case represents a particular danger to the preservation of the portrait, as primer and fragments of gilding that are coming away continue to fall onto the wax. It is urgently necessary to reinforce the gilding and eliminate the crack.

In the future the staff of the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Precious Metals hopes to use the experience they will acquire to carry out a major restoration project on the entire collection of wax portraits belonging to the State Hermitage’s Numismatics Department.

The project is being carried out in stages with the support of the Friends of the Hermitage.

 Contact:  Svetlana Filippova