Page 11 - Finding Van Dyck

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9
been in the possession of a family for many generations. As
John Locke warned, it only takes a change in generation for
important knowledge to be lost: after all, how many of us can
easily recall the names of our own great-grandparents? Even
portraits of significant historical figures can lose their identity,
as happened to one of Van Dyck’s more compelling male
portraits,
Cat.14
, which for many years was called
A Senator
of Antwerp
. Here, we suggest it may be Abbé Scaglia, one of
Van Dyck’s most important patrons, in an essay by Scaglia’s
biographer, Dr Toby Osborne.
The exhibition will also look at some of the many other
reasons pictures are lost. As Philip Mould explains, a painting’s
condition is often crucial when it comes to assessing its quality.
Like Van Dyck’s study of
St Joseph
(
Cat.7
), it may have
become so dirty over the centuries that it is almost impossible
to detect the trademark signs of an artist’s technique. Layers
of later over-paint applied by an incompetent restorer are
frequently encountered, as in the curiously painted right eye
currently disfiguring the
Portrait of a Lady
on loan from the
Bowes Museum (
Cat.9
). Sometimes, it is simply a matter of a
discoloured varnish obscuring a signature, as happened with
the
Portrait of a Lady
by Adriaen Hanneman (
Cat.23
).
Researching a painting’s provenance can also be vitally
important. Did, for example, earlier generations believe a
picture to be by Van Dyck? Might an old inventory contain
a reference to a sitter’s identity? When we first encountered
Van Dyck’s
Portrait of a Young Girl
(
Cat.13
), for example, it
was catalogued simply as ‘Flemish School, Portrait of a
Young Girl’, with an estimate of €15–20,000. But by tracing
its provenance back to a succession of important owners we
were able to discern that it had previously been considered to
be by Van Dyck, and that copious references to it in the archives
of the early 19th Century connoisseur John Smith revealed
thatit had once been an oval. Such information gave us the
confidence to bid a considerable way beyond the estimate.
Fig.2: John Greenhill,
Portrait of John Locke
, National Portrait Gallery, London.