Object of the Week

Father Postgate Portrait

For many years we have had in our possession a portrait of Father Postgate, the ‘Ugthorpe Martyr’. It’s origin, age and artist are uncertain, though it has long been assumed locally to be a true likeness, maybe even painted during his lifetime. We presume that it was owned by people living on the moors where Father Postgate is held in great respect.

Father Postgate was born in 1597, during a dark period for the Catholic Church in England, when to be a Catholic was a punishable offence, to be a Catholic priest was treason. After training in France and serving many years as a priest in Yorkshire, many in the North York Moors, he was arrested in Ugglebarnby and executed in York on 7 August 1679, aged 82.

The image has assumed a greater significance for local Catholics since 1987, as it was in that year that Father Nicholas Postgate was declared to be ‘Blessed’ by the late Pope John Paul II, one step below ‘Saint’ in the Catholic Church tradition.

Research undertaken a few years ago has given us some answers which, although not concrete, have helped us better understand the painting’s age and condition.

The painting was taken to a conservator in London for cleaning and tests. First a dendrochronologist inspected the piece, and although there were too few tree-rings on either the image or the frame to take samples he noted that they appeared to be from coppiced, or farmed, oak.

Examination of the frame showed a number of embedded rusty nails, which indicated it may come from either an old piece of furniture or a floor-board. It is impossible to say for certain if the wood is local, or where it had been used, but it is tempting to suggest buildings of significance in Postgate’s life as likely candidates, perhaps the Hermitage at Ugthorpe where he lived, or the Mass House at Egton, where a hidden chapel was discovered in 1830.

The image itself measures just 146 by 134 millimetres (roughly 6 by 5 inches) and is 6mm (3/10 of an inch) deep.

In keeping with the museum’s instruction the painting was given only a light clean removing an accumulation of wax and surface dirt. There are areas of cracking on the image, most visibly on the cloak, and these have not been retouched.

Samples of the paint were taken by the Art History Department at University College, London and a comprehensive, illustrated report produced. The first findings were related to the preparation, the layer under the image, which is predominantly white, with another layer with a pale blue tint. Particles tested showed a complex mixture, with silica, barates, calcites and some ochres; these can all be found in paint from the sixteenth century up to the present day.

When the paint of the image was tested it was found that there were no more modern white pigments in the painting, and this absence of 19th century zinc white or early 20th century titanium white, strongly suggests 18th century work. Lead white, or flake white had been used in both the ground and image.

The cloak is painted in ochres, warm earthy pigments which were widely used in oil paint because their hue was stable and natural. But most importantly, it is the types of blue pigments used which can date the picture. Traces of natural ultramarine over the top of Prussian blue which was of particular interest. This very expensive colour, derived from lapis lazuli found only in Afghanistan, was quickly replaced by the much cheaper Prussian blue and in fairly wide use as early as 1710.

In conclusion the picture created a conundrum for the conservators. The presence of earth pigments and flake white makes it difficult to date by colour alone. The blue used gives an indication of the earliest possible date, about 1710, some thirty years after Postgate’s execution which would indicate that, rather than being painted from life as was once thought, the picture was painted by someone who knew, or from the memory of someone who had known the ‘Priest of the Moors’.

Recently, permission was granted to The Postgate Society of the diocese of Middlesbrough to use the image for promotional and religious purposes. The diocese is hoping to have a copy of the image on display in every church within the diocese. Unfortunately, the current pandemic has halted this process but perhaps this may encourage devotion to him and may lead to the second miracle that is required in order for Rome to make him a saint.

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