Our clients always want to discover more about the history of their painting, whether this is through technical analysis or the uncovering of an artist’s signature during restoration. Whilst some artworks have a title or inscription on their frame, many historic portraits will list the title and status of their sitter on the canvas itself. 

Portrait text

Oil painting inscriptions are usually in gold leaf, surrounding the head or to the side of the composition. From the Tudor period onwards our team often come across paintings that require sensitive restoration in order to preserve and further reveal this important text.

Understanding oil painting inscriptions

The golden text on an oil painting usually gives us details about its subject matter, it is often found on a portrait of royalty or nobility. The purpose of a title inscription on the painting surface is to both celebrate and commemorate the status of the sitter, either to serve as an important family heirloom or as a public piece of art. The title ensures that the sitter of the portrait does not go forgotten, adding an extra layer of immortality to the painting.

Pierre Gobert portraitAbove: a detail from a portrait of Marie Adélaïde de Savoie by Pierre Gobert, 1710

Titular inscriptions are commonly found on portraits from the 15th century through to the 18th century, this inclusion typically depletes in use over the centuries as the printing press emerges – allowing the name and face of the sitter to be more easily shared beyond their few oil portraits. 

Dutch painting coat of armsAbove: a detail of a triple coat of arms on a family portrait by Gerard ter Borch the Younger, 1653-4

Oil painting inscriptions can be very helpful in giving the exact date and provenance of a painting, in some cases the text may have been applied to assist with this in the future. However, some inscriptions could have been added by later generations in memory of the sitter, or in rare cases added in an attempt to make a painting appear older than it actually is. 

Holbein ladyAbove: a detail from a portrait of Lady Lee by the studio of Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540s

Latin and Old English feature heavily in inscriptions, it is worth noting that the style and use of some words or letters may have varied over time. Some text can be very hard to read due to unclear handwriting or heavy use of Latin phrases, however, they will always be a helpful step in exploring the history of a portrait and our conservation team can assist in translating obscure or unusual inscriptions. 

Typical Latin phrases found on oil paintings include ANNO meaning year and ETATIS or ANNO ETATIS SVA (sometimes written ANNO AETATIS SUAE) before the age of the sitter. You may also find family mottos included in Latin.

Holbein portrait with inscriptionAbove: a detail from a portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, including the year and age of the sitter was popular in this era of oil painting 

Revealing & restoring inscriptions

Whilst our conservators take measures to never alter the history or provenance of a painting, they can use professional treatments to help you uncover or safely preserve this text.

Text on oil painting detailAbove: a title detail on a portrait in our restoration studio

Gold leaf inscriptions may sit on top of the varnish layer, giving them less protection and more likely to wear away or tarnish with age. When a painting is cleaned and the varnish is removed, our conservation team take measures to ensure all materials and pigments are tested to ensure they will not be removed or damaged in the process. Whilst our conservators cannot retouch signatures, gold leaf text and titular inscriptions can be sensitively and sympathetically retouched to stabilise this important aspect of the painting going forwards. 

Inscription portraitsAbove: examples of portraits with inscriptions that we have seen in our studio

In some cases, the inscription of a painting may be beneath the varnish layer and hiding under centuries of discolouration. Our team can remove varnish to find much clearer details, helping you to advance your investigation of a painting and its subject matter.

Text closeupAbove: a close-up detail of text on a portrait in our studio

How can we help?

If you have a painting with an inscription that may require preservation treatments or restoration, please contact our helpful team for further advice.

You can call our helpful team on 01228 521 231 or email [email protected]