Before 'n After
October 1 2012
Picture: Philip Mould & Company
Many thanks to all of you who wrote in and had a go at my 'Test Your Connoisseurship' on this picture.* Sorry it was so fiendish. One or two of you spotted the difference in quality between the head and the rest - well done.
If it's any consolation, I had no idea that it might be two paintings in one, so to speak, from the online image, and subsequently no idea of the inherent quality. I was sure it was an 18th Century copy - the hands and drapery were, to me, a clear sign that it was out of period. It was only until I stood in front of the picture in the auction room that I began to see how the head shone out from the canvas, how the curious 'tide mark' of over-paint beneath Henrietta Maria's cheek marked the transition from one painted area to the next, and how the cracking seams of the smaller rectangular shape of the original picture were beginning to emerge from the larger additions.
So, for any sleeper hunters out there, the moral of the story is, good digital images are useful. But nothing beats first-hand inspection of the work in question. And that's enough tricks of the trade for now...
* For overseas readers who may not have been able to see 'Fake or Fortune?', the story, briefly, is this: we bought this picture as 'After Van Dyck'. We had a hunch that underneath the oceans of blue and rather clumsy over-paint, there might be an original Van Dyck underneath, showing Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, as Saint Catherine. The composition was, until now, only known through copies. Over one thousand hours of conservation later (and five hundred scalpel blades) we were able to reveal the above picture. We don't know by whom or exactly when the picture was over-painted, but it was possibly done because it was unfinished, as can be seen by the areas of ground around the hand, and parts of the hair and crown. Van Dyck's typical umber under-drawing strokes can also be seen in the picture. Van Dyck scholar Dr Christopher Brown concluded the programme by saying, after he had had a first opportunity to examine the picture, that he thought it was certainly unfinished, certainly from Van Dyck's studio, and had a good chance, following further comparison and research, that areas such as the head were by Van Dyck himself. He was happy, until then, to call the picture 'Attributed to Van Dyck'. It is now on display at the Banqueting House in London, where Henrietta Maria used to live.