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Portrait of Robert Thorne Coryndon and the Restoration of His a Damaged Portrait

Updated on July 11, 2019
Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel is from Nairobi, Kenya and loves researching its history. He is also an artist and likes to share what he knows with others.

A damaged portrait of Sir Robert Coryndon

While sorting objects in storage at the Nairobi National Museum, we came across a portrait painting of a white man. It had been kept in a corner that had a leaking roof. Water had drained on the oil painting for a period of at least five years. Many other panels had been damaged but nothing seemed as priceless as the painting. It happened that we could not identify the person in the painting. The man posed in a regal manner at a writing desk, with hand written papers depicted on it. There was an equally regal curtain behind him and Mt kenya could be seen in the horizon through the window. I guessed at the time that the man must have been at one time a governor of Kenya in colonial times. It was just a hunch but it turned out to be true. The frame looked very expensive by today's standards.

Several people looked at the painting and could not identify it. When the Art Curator saw the paining, she recognised the man immediately. She said that they had been looking for an image of Sir Robert Thorne Coryndon to put in what was the Coryndon Hall, in the Nairobi Museum. Now the search was over. The portrait was that of Sir Robert Thorne Coryndon. But the water runoff had damaged the painting extensively. It had flaked off severely and merely touching the canvas with a finger released more paint flakes to the ground. At first we had wondered how such a good painting had been done without a primer only to realise that the flakes had fallen off together with the primer, leaving a bare brownish canvas. Some detail had be lost as can be seen in the picture above. Looking at the flakes, one would have been excused for thinking that a cheap acrylic paint had been used. Since Coryndon died in 1925, the painting was considerably old. It is unlikely to have painted posthumously since during that era, subjects posed for their portraits.

Fortunately photographs of the painting were available. It was possible to see how the detail in the coat pocket had been, complete with a kerchief. Without the photographs, it would have been completely impossible to restore the painting. Below are the steps that I took to restore the painting.

History of Sir Robert Thorne Coryndon

Sir Robert Thorne Coryndon was born on 2 April 1870 in South Africa. According to Wikipedia, he was one of the most powerful of colonial administrators of his day.

Robert Thorne Coryndon joined the Bechuanaland Border Police which Cecil Rhodes had created in 1889. Between 1893 and 1896 he served in campaigns in Matabeleland.

Robert Thorne Coryndon was appointed private secretary to Cecil Rhodes in 1896, and in September 1900 he was appointed commissioner Barotziland - North West Rhodesia until 1907. In 1916 he was appointed Resident Commissioner in the then Basutoland. In 1917 Coryndon was given the position of Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Uganda, taking office in 1918.

Winston Churchill appointed Robert Thorne Coryndon as Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Kenya and High Commissioner of the spice island of Zanzibar In 1922. He was in charge from 15 August 1922 to February 1925.

Robert Thorne Coryndon was awarded the CMG in 1911 and KCMG in 1919. On 10 February 1925, Corryndon passed away in Nairobi. In 1929 the Kenyan colonial government allocated land in Nairobi for a museum in his memory. It was officially opened on 22 September 1930 as The Coryndon Museum. It was re-named theNairobi National Museum after independence in 1963. Today, the Nairobi National Museums is the Headquarters for the National Museums of Kenya which includes numerous museums, sites and monuments around the country.

This is the extent of the damage. The extreme lert and right have areas that are down to the canvas after flaking
This is the extent of the damage. The extreme lert and right have areas that are down to the canvas after flaking | Source


1. The painting was cleaned with running water. This removed all soil particles that would have caused abrasions if a rug had been used.Flakes were encouraged to fall off. Loose flakes would have made restoration difficult as they would still come off later.

2. A rug with soapy water was used gently to clean the surface of the painting. Being an oil painting, there was no risk of destroying the undamaged areas. Places that were prone to further flaking were encouraged to flake off further. This would leave only the areas that was not at risk of further flaking.


3. The picture was now clean, with no loose flakes. The areas that flaked were primed with white Acrylic Gesso Primer (Galeria). Since the flakes were a fraction of a millimeter thick, the areas that had flaked off were indented and an attempt was made to raise them to the height of the painted areas by applying several coats of the primer.


3. Following the image in the photograph, the damaged areas were restored with Galeria oil paints. While turpentine was used for quick drying, linseed oil was used in specific areas such as the man's coat and the curtain where detail and shadows were delicate.

The painting is now proudly hanging at the entrance of what was the 'Coryndon Hall' in the Nairobi National Museum. This gallery now houses the Central Bank of Kenya exhibition on the history of money in Kenya.

This was my first attempt at restoring a painting. I would like to hear from restoration experts if a procedure was missed out.

Below is the restored portrait of Sir Robert Coryndon

The areas that were down to the canvas have been primed and painted over.
The areas that were down to the canvas have been primed and painted over. | Source

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