Page 10 - Finding Van Dyck

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Why ‘Finding Van Dyck’?
When the seventeenth-century philosopher, John Locke, sat to
Sir Godfrey Kneller for his portrait in 1704, he made a special
request. He asked for ‘Sir Godfrey to write on the backside of
John Locke 1704
[...] this is necessary to be done’, he
continued, ‘as else the pictures of private persons are lost in
two or three generations and so the picture loses of its value,
it being not known whom it was made to represent.’
Sadly for Locke, not everyone followed his advice. About a
year ago, this gallery found a fine portrait drawing of him (fig.1)
in a sale at Christie’s South Kensington. It was catalogued as
Portrait of a Gentleman
, and, proving that in a sense Locke
was right to worry about his portrait’s future ‘value’, was
bought for just £386. It relates to a painting by John Greenhill
in the National Portrait Gallery (fig.2).
This exhibition reflects the fact that very few artists, and even
fewer sitters, were as far-sighted as Locke.
Finding Van Dyck
examines why paintings lose their attribution or identities,
becoming in the process art history’s orphans. It explores
how one goes about re-identifying such pictures, and the
skills (and risks) involved.
In truth, the exhibition could be called
Finding just-about-
, because as art dealers we scour daily the world’s
auction catalogues for paintings that are in some way
wrongly identified. In any week, our finds might range from a
misidentified Tudor icon to a misattributed eighteenth-century
landscape, not to mention some optimism-induced mistakes.
But by a strange chance we seem to have hit a seam of
Van Dycks over the last eighteen months, both in our day job
as art dealers and also through conducting research for a
new BBC television series. So,
Finding Van Dyck
it is.
Of course, due to the haphazard nature of such discoveries
we cannot hope to present a comprehensive study of, say,
Van Dyck’s technique or a particular aspect of his career.
This exhibition therefore cannot claim to be anything but
(we hope) an enjoyably random selection of interesting
seventeenth-century paintings through which, in conjunction
with this catalogue, we hope to explain (without giving away
too many trade secrets) how one goes about finding a painting
by Van Dyck. For that reason, the catalogue will not consist of
individual entries for each picture, but a selection of accessible
essays outlining some of the key processes of discovery, from
the identification of a sitter to assessing a picture’s condition.
We have also included, by way of an extended epilogue, a
number of works by some of Van Dyck’s immediate followers,
from the miniaturist Samuel Cooper to the court portraitist Sir
Peter Lely. Many of these pictures (
Catalogue. nos. 15 to 27
have been acquired using the same techniques we shall
discuss in relation to the works by Van Dyck, and are either
newly discovered or relatively unknown.
Losing Van Dyck
The pictures in this exhibition show that there are many
reasons why paintings become detached from their identities
or attributions. Occasionally, as Emma Rutherford suggests of
Samuel Cooper’s miniature portrait of Oliver Cromwell (
a picture may have been ‘borrowed’, and never returned. More
often than not, though, it is simply through the lack of a good
label. This is particularly the case with portraits that have
1 David Piper,
Catalogue of Seventeenth-Century Portraits in the National Portrait
Gallery, 1625–1714
, (Cambridge, 1963), p.209.
Fig.1: Attributed to John Greenhill (1644–1676),
Portrait drawing of
John Locke (1632–1704).
Catalogued as
Portrait of a Gentleman
at auction,
but to the sharp-eyed a dead-ringer for the portrait of Locke in the NPG, right.