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Conservators discover secrets hidden in paintings of celebrated Kiwi artist Rita Angus

Fifty years after her death, the works of celebrated New Zealand artist Rita Angus will go on display in a major exhibition in London this year.

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Fifty years after her death, the paintings are under a microscope as they’re prepared for shipment to London for a major exhibition. Source: 1 NEWS

About 70 paintings, including iconic pieces like “Rutu” and “Cass”, will go on display at the Royal Academy of Arts in October.

But before they’re shipped off, conservators are examining the paintings using microscopes, infrared cameras and UV lights.

Tijana Cvetkovic and Linda Waters from Te Papa have made some surprising discoveries. When they put Angus’ self-portrait, “Cleopatra”, under infrared lights they could see the pencil drawing beneath the paint.

It showed Angus had originally drawn herself holding a cigarette but had painted over it in the final version. “It’s a new discovery for the art world,” said Te Papa conservator Linda Waters.

Angus painted more than 700 works and is regarded as one of New Zealand’s leading artists of last century.

Her self-portraits are iconic. Before they’re shipped off to London, the conservators are taking the opportunity to study the way she painted eyes. 

"We can see under the microscope that the purple she’s used, she's mixed herself. We can see the tiny touches of paint she’s used that creates the eye," said Ms Waters.

But the biggest surprise of all for the conservators studying Angus’ work is just how little pencil she used to sketch out her paintings. 

"She's worked out exactly what she wants to do and there it is in front of us in paint and I find that quite remarkable," said Ms Waters.

The paintings are being loaned by Te Papa, home to the largest collection of Angus’ works.