How paintings lose their attribution

December 11 2013

Image of How paintings lose their attribution

Picture: Birmingham Museums Trust

Here's an interesting example of how easily pictures can become 'unknown', and lose their attribution. The above portrait belongs to Birmingham Museums Trust, and was acquired in 1999 as a work by George Romney. But it was recently submitted to the Understanding British Portraits website with a plea for help, because the picture had:

[...] a problematic attribution. It was acquired in 1999 as by Romney, but we have never been able to confirm this and we are hoping to draw on the Understanding British Portrait network’s expertise to try and find out more about it. Our former Principal Curator Jane Farrington sought advice in 1999 from Alex Kidson, who asserted that the costume and conception of the portrait were close to Romney’s ‘Mrs Collingwood’ in the Walker, however expressed doubts over the attribution based on the handling of paint. Jane also corresponded with the Scottish National Portrait Gallery to enquire as to whether the work could be by Allan Ramsay, but James Holloway and Nicola Kalinsky both responded that this was unlikely, but suggested similarities with the work of Francis Cotes or Wright of Derby.

The work is currently on display in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in Gallery 23 until around May 2014, so if anyone from the network is passing through Birmingham over the next seven months it is available to view and we welcome any thoughts or suggestions about it – please use the ‘add a comment’ facility below.

The portrait is quite clearly an early work by George Romney. Intrigued, I emailed Alex Kidson, whose catalogue raisonne of Romney's work will soon be published. Alex tells me that he also thinks the portrait is by Romney, and that it will be included in his catalogue. So somehow there was a misunderstanding back in 1999, when Alex mentioned some unusual aspects of the handling in the arm (which as you can see from the image was altered by Romney).

Sometimes I've seen pictures appear at auction as by an unknown artist, despite the fact that they were sold as fully (and correctly) catalogued works just a few years earlier. I always advise people to physically attach any letters/invoices/provenance to the back of a painting. 

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