Previous Posts: October 2012

Be 'Fresco Jesus'!

October 4 2012

Image of Be 'Fresco Jesus'!


If you're invited to a restorers fancy dress party, this is what you should wear. Thanks to Matt Loder for alerting me. 

Mona Lisa theory no.671

October 3 2012

Video: Isis - The Mona Lisa Revealed

Ping! Into my inbox comes an email pushing a new ebook on the Mona Lisa, which;

...offers a whole new interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, unlike anything ever seen before.

It's the usual story of imagined shapes seen in various places in the painting, as you can see in the above video. Apparently the one shown to the left of Mona Lisa is Leonardo's own portrait. Looks like an angry cat to me. 

The deranged and the desperate, ctd.

October 2 2012

Image of The deranged and the desperate, ctd.

Picture: Twitter

Some months ago I mentioned a fellow on Twitter, 'Tom Mersey' who was selling a Damien Hirst-like 'Spot Painting' for £2m. Tom seems to spend his days tweeting random people asking them if they would like to buy his painting. 

Well, Tom is still at it. And when asked recently why the picture was so expensive, he came up with the above genius response. Must try it some time.

Birmingham acquires Reynolds full-length

October 2 2012

Image of Birmingham acquires Reynolds full-length

Picture: Birmingham Museums

Congratulations to Birmingham for completing their acquisition of Joshua Reynolds' fine full-length of Dr John Ash. Says their press release:

[Museum director] Professor Sumner comments, "We are delighted to announce that Birmingham Museums will be acquiring this significant work. The portrait is one of Reynolds' late, great works, and its combined historic and artistic qualities make it one of the most important cultural icons of the city of Birmingham. The acquisition comes at a particularly opportune time for the city, and will be presented as part of a larger celebration of portraiture from Birmingham’s collections in 2013." [...]

Birmingham Museums Trust was awarded a grant of £675,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £100,000 from The Art Fund to support the acquisition. The Museums Trust has successfully raised a further £100,000 through grants from organisations including the Museum Development Trust, Public Picture Gallery Fund, the Friends of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, William A Cadbury Trust and John Feeney Trust. 

It's been interesting to watch this acquisition unfold, and quite quickly too - I went to do the initial valuation just under a year ago. Well done to all involved.

A fingerprint - but whose?

October 2 2012

Image of A fingerprint - but whose?

Pictures: BG

A piece of interesting evidence that didn't make it into the programme on our Henrietta Maria was the appearance of two fingerprints beneath the 18th Century over-paint. One was in the hair (below), and the other (above) was a thumb print at the bottom edge of the canvas, as if someone had picked up the still wet painting with their hand on the stretcher bar, but their thumb on the bottom of the canvas - just as you would if it was propped up against a wall, or against other pictures.

Now before you start groaning, none of us ever thought we could say that these were Van Dyck's fingerprints. That whole area of forensic analysis is sadly too discredited. But it was interesting nonetheless, and suggested that, certainly in the softer brown pigments of the hair, the layer of original paint we reached was relatively intact. Had the picture been massively over-cleaned and abraded in the past, the soft impasto of a finger-print would most likely have been removed. 

Optimism, ctd. (again)

October 2 2012

Image of Optimism, ctd. (again)

Picture: Mail

In their weekly 'expierience' column, The Observer treated us to a piece entitled 'I inherited a Da Vinci'. There was no illustration of the picture, but sadly it turned out to be the above case of severe optimism, which we covered here earlier. Said the lucky heiress, Fiona McLaren;

...experts have examined her, and the consensus is that she is from the school of Leonardo da Vinci, possibly even by da Vinci himself. Either way, it's a masterpiece, and could be worth millions. I've no idea if the man who gave the painting to my father knew any of this, or how it came to be in his possession.

Through my own research, I've become convinced the painting is Leonardo's final commission, at the request of Francis I of France and completed shortly before his death. I am equally certain that it depicts Mary Magdalene rather than the Virgin Mary, and that the infant in her arms is the child of Jesus – it would have been considered heretical by the church, and put the artist at great risk. But we won't know for sure until next year.

The Madonna is now locked up in a vault, awaiting expert appraisal. I miss her terribly, but I hope she will be the catalyst for a great good. When the painting finally goes to auction, I've pledged to use the money raised to set up a foundation named after Leonardo's 16-year-old peasant mother, Caterina, who had her child taken from her, to provide support for children in care. I'd like to believe such an act would be very much in the spirit of the great man himself. I won't sell to a private collector: it's vital that she ends up in a gallery or museum, where anyone who wants to see her will be able to – myself included.

All very worthy, but surely readers deserve better of The Observer.

Optimism, ctd.

October 2 2012


I keep getting emails from someone trying to pass off this portrait of an unknown French nobleman as Bonnie Prince Charlie. The latest involves a fantastic bit of video tomfoolery to 'prove' the likeness. Watch as someone takes a bicycle pump to the head, and inflates it furiously. 

I've tried to reason with the portrait's backer, but to no avail. There was a Wikipedia page about the picture with all sorts of ludicrous claims, but as this was repeatedly corrected, it got deleted. Now, the portrait has its own website, which seeks to explain away details (like the lack of any Garter sash) with airy nonsense. It's simply a half-decent portrait of a member of the Order of St Esprit - but these days there's no convincing some people.

Henrietta Maria mid-clean

October 1 2012

Image of Henrietta Maria mid-clean

Picture: BG

I thought I'd put this picture up of the Henrietta Maria in mid-clean. What an amazing job our restorers Rebecca Gregg and Jo Gorlov did. What you see here is the exciting nature of what lay beneath the 18th Century over-paint. The revealed drapery was in pleasingly good condition - there is no re-touching here at all.

As you can see, the over-paint was not removed as systematically as you might imagine - it was a case of following a good 'seam' of over-paint, almost following the strokes of the paint as it had been applied. 

Was it right to excavate?

October 1 2012

Image of Was it right to excavate?

Picture: BG

A reader and viewer of 'Fake or Fortune?' writes:

...the part of the programme where the painting was cut down and relined literally made me feel mildly unwell! My problem, I guess, is that my background is in history, rather than art history - and that I have been thinking of SPAB-type building restoration issues rather than art per se recently. 

I couldn't help worrying, though, about what boils down to be a decision to destroy one state of an extant work in order to create what is, in some sense, a new work - a work which includes autograph work by Van Dyck, but which also incorporates decisions by a conservator regarding the removal of old varnish and old paint, a radical change in the size of the canvas, and a bit of skilful restoration. The result is, admittedly, beautiful - but at the same time, something has been lost.

It's a very interesting point - when is it acceptable to destroy one art work in order to get at another? We have recently had a most extreme view with the Battle of Anghiari debacle. In the case of Henrietta Maria, it was thought, mainly on a basis of connoisseurship (gasp!) that the painting on top was obviously not a great work of art. It was possible to date it to the early 18th Century, to about the 1730s. But there was no identifiable hand, or even a very skilled one. It appeared to have been done by either an enthusiastic amateur, or perhaps a regional artist in the manner of someone like John Vanderbank. But it really wasn't a great piece of painting, and art history will recover from the loss of 28 x 24 inches worth of not particularly good bodice and drapery. The remainder, above, is on display at the Banqueting House (I'm hoping Philip will one day let me keep it as a souvenir).

So in this case, what lay beneath was clearly worth pursuing. But if it had been, say, a body by Joshua Reynolds over a Van Dyck, it probably would not have been. But then Reynolds would probably have never done such a thing...

Update - a reader writes:

The spectacular appearance of the Original work fully justifies the discarding of the repainted portrait, repainted to deceive a purchaser in the 18th century that they had a fully 'complete' work. The state the picture is in now, allows us to see the work as Van Dyck wanted us to see it, with the very Titianesque sleeve to the fore, congratulations on a wonderful conclusion.

Before 'n After

October 1 2012

Image of Before 'n After

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.

Vermeer in Rome

October 1 2012

Image of Vermeer in Rome

Picture: Rijksmuseum

A major new exhibition on Vermeer and his age has opened in Rome, at the Scuderie del Quirinale. The show includes eight Vermeers, and fifty works by his contemporaries. More details and images here

On the 'Isleworth Mona Lisa' - Kemp speaks

October 1 2012

Image of On the 'Isleworth Mona Lisa' - Kemp speaks

Picture: TAN

If you haven't already seen it, Leonardo scholar Professor Martin Kemp has written a much-needed take down on the 'Iselworth Mona Lisa'. Money quote:

The book claims that none of the evidence of scientific examination indicates that the Isleworth picture is not by Leonardo. Nor does it show that it is not by Raphael. Even this ineffectual claim, with its double negative, is not justified. The infrared reflectogram and X-ray published on p. 253 do not reveal any of the characteristics of Leonardo’s preparatory methods. Leonardo, as the infrared images of the Louvre painting show, was an inveterate fiddler with his compositions even once he had begin to work on the primed surfaces of his panels. The images of the Isleworth canvas have the dull monotony that would be expected of a copy.

He also highlights the growing over-use of 'technical evidence', and how it alone seems to carry an unimpeachably convicing aura:

I see lots of dossiers of “scientific evidence” attached to purported Leonardos. It often seems enough to have the texts with the data, diagrams and images to “prove” the authenticity, whether or not the they actually tell us anything that actively supports Leonardo’s authorship.

Sadly, none of this will feature in the press. The story has had its splash, the media caravan has moved on, and the public will remain as confused as ever.

Van Dyck's Henrietta Maria on display

October 1 2012

Image of Van Dyck's Henrietta Maria on display

Picture: BG

Thanks for your kind messages everyone - I'm glad you liked the final episode of 'Fake or Fortune?'. We had another strong audience showing - 4.3m viewers, peaking at 4.8m. The programme started off with 3.8m, then steadily put on another million viewers, despite the XFactor starting halfway through on ITV. 

Here's a shot of the picture on display at the Banqueting House, where it hangs alongside one the best known studio of Van Dyck version (left). It's very instructive to see the two side by side - if you go and see them, let me know what you think. The BH's opening times are a bit sporadic, so it's best to check out their website first. In the middle is the remainder of the larger 18thCentury canvas. I'm afraid the lighting in the case could be better - we're hoping to improve it.

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