Artwatch UK

Posts tagged “Raphael ‘Madonna of the Pinks’

Connoisseurship: Examinations, Debates and Snap Visual Responses

23 November 2016

The rising tide of old master “sleepers” and “discoveries” carries great dangers and demands snap judgements. Some candidates for upgrades intrigue, some look dubious, some scream “Fake!” Last week two cases caught our eye.


Fig. 1, above. Fig. 2, below. The newly discovered “Lost” Van Gogh sketchbook (above, top) rang our and many other fake bells. Then came a report that a small “Florentine School” painting on a €3-4k estimate fetched €375k at auction as a sleeping Filippino Lippi (above, Fig. 1). A link to another small work attributed to the artist at the North Carolina Museum of Art (Fig. 2, below) showed pronounced, seemingly reassuring correspondences, but something jarred.


On connoisseurship we hold that every claimant work should be rigorously “interrogated” in three crucial respects. Technically, in its physical composition; by documentation on its known or claimed histories (provenance); and, above all, by visual analysis because, in the visual arts, every picture is its own prime historical document and its inbuilt historically-generated artistic relationships constitute the primary subject of art critical appraisal and evaluation.

Failure to excise bad attributions deceives the public and corrupts oeuvres. A good picture has nothing to fear from challenges. No amount of scrutiny constitutes a threat as good pictures outlive their doubters and can fight another day. Argument is healthy and a successfully repulsed challenge can increase understanding and enhance a good picture’s lustre.

Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook


Above, Fig. 3. The controversial lost-but-now-found Van Gogh sketch book above is by Professor Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, a Van Gogh authority whose claims of authenticity are supported by Ronald Pickvance, author of Van Gogh in Arles, but the cover’s supposed Van Gogh ink self-portrait announces itself as a draughtsman’s pastiche, as Mark Hudson noted in the Daily Telegraph (“A romantic story but can it really live up to its promise?”, 16 November 2016).


Above, Fig. 4. Simply by placing the supposed Van Gogh self-portrait next to an autograph portrait, immense and glaring differences become apparent: the author of the “discovered” drawing has abandoned symmetry with eyes of radically different sizes and a nose that seems product of a car crash. Throughout, the author mimics Van Gogh’s pen marks without comprehension of his form, power of design, and psychological acuity.


Above, Fig. 5. Instead of a form-camouflaging jumble of marks, the bona fide Van Gogh disports five graphically discrete component parts: a light-coloured jacket; a dark shirt and scarf; a varied but, on aggregate, mid-toned face; a light-toned hat with some mid and dark-toned form articulating shading; and, throwing all other values into relief, an agitated but tonally cohering background. Each of these spheres is allotted its own graphically purposive notations. The four images we show above for comparison are easily found online in historically successive reproductions. While these reproductions vary considerably, the force and artistic coherence of Van Gogh’s graphic intent and method shines through all.


Above, Fig. 6. If we place the bona fide Van Gogh between the clumsy mimicking newcomer and a masterpiece of the greatest graphic brilliance – van Dyck’s etched self-portrait – it is clear that the Van Gogh has more kinship with the latter than with the former.


Above, Fig. 7. And if we compare the Van Gogh with an entirely autograph van Dyck etched state of a figure we find a common use of a toned background that throws both subjects’ flickeringly brilliant lights and darks into relief.

The Van Gogh Museum’s objections to the “Lost Arles Sketchbook” and its track record on Van Gogh attributions


Above, Fig. 8. Prof. Welsh-Ovcharov (top) has responded to the Van Gogh Museum’s dismissal of the drawings with a rebuttal and a challenge to debate – thereby showing conviction and good faith. Her publisher reportedly characterises the proposed debate as “an opportunity to shed light on the conditions under which the Van Gogh Museum is claiming the de facto right to a monopoly of attribution.” This is a common plaint against authorities that block would-be, high-value attributions but our impression of the museum’s judgements is favourable.

In 2006 a Van Gogh – The “Head of a Man” owned by the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia (above left, on an easel) – was challenged by the art historian and Sunday Times art critic Frank Whitford when the portrait was loaned to an exhibition in Edinburgh. The newspaper asked our opinion and, when we demurred, sent a (revelatory) high resolution full colour compilation of all of Van Gogh’s painted portraits. We supported Whitford, saying to the newspaper (as reported in ArtWatch UK Journal, Spring 2008):

“The specific warning signs that should have alerted the buyer are:

“1] It is unique in Van Gogh’s portrait oeuvre

“2] It does not fit in the stylistic chronology that exists within that oeuvre. Compare it for example with the brushwork, colours and ‘attack’ of the Old Man with Beard, painted the year before that is in the Van Gogh Museum, and the Portrait of Camille Roulin painted a year or so later and that is also in the museum. There is an enormous but clear and logical development between those two pictures, from thick, laboured, relatively coarse brushwork to much more refined and ‘decorative’ marks – but both are entirely consistent and ‘all-over’ in their treatment.

“3] If its provenance goes back no further than Germany in the late 20s or early 30s, that is particularly unfortunate. Germany at the time was notorious for the certification by scholars (for a fee or sales cut) of dud works. The dealer René Gimpel has referred to the scandalous ‘amounts obtained by means of certificates given daily by German experts to German dealers. Just as there were paper marks, so there are paper canvases, an easy way of bringing dollars into Germany…The German title of Doktor impresses the Americans. The museums are even more intent than the collectors on defending their fakes or their mistaken attributions….’ By coincidence, in the current ArtWatch Journal [No 21], Kasia Pisarek cites the case of the great Rubens scholar Ludwig Burchard who issued so many optimistic certificates that he was unable ever to write his definitive book on the artist…She has identified over 60 Burchard attributions that have subsequently fallen. It was Burchard who first upgraded to Rubens the Samson and Delilah that is now in the National Gallery.

“I would add that the fact that it seems to be admitted that it is a cut-down canvas that was glued onto a panel compounds suspicions… Why should a (presumably) then only forty years old canvas, have needed gluing onto a secondary support? It might be worth asking the Gallery curators if any scholar has questioned the picture publicly or privately.

“It may be coincidence, but two of the pictures that ArtWatch has challenged in our own National Gallery, the Rubens Samson and Delilah and the Raphael Madonna of the Pinks, no longer retain their original backs. The former was planed down to 2 or 3mm thickness and glued onto a sheet of blockboard; with the latter, the family of restorers who sold the picture in the 19th century had (most unusually) polished the back of the panel thereby removing all historical evidence.”

As we have seen more recently, the claimed lost Leonardo drawing “La Bella Principessa” that emerged anonymously in 1998 had been glued to an old oak panel. Gluing canvases or drawings onto boards conceals half the material evidence. On 3 August 2007 Andrew Bolt reported in the Australian Herald Sun:

“The curious thing about the National Gallery of Victoria’s fake van Gogh is how easily it was spotted as phoney once it went on tour…. For more than 60 years this painting hung in the NGV without anyone screaming ‘Fake!’ True, a few experts now say they had their doubts, but it was only when the NGV proudly loaned its ‘van Gogh’ to Scotland’s Dean Gallery last year that the painting was denounced. Three British critics took one look at it and snorted… Even then, there were some back in Melbourne who couldn’t accept the evidence of their own eyes, as ABC Television’s 7.30 Report found:

“‘Two of the critics include Michael Daley from ArtWatch UK and Times art critic Frank Whitford. But Robyn Sloggett [an art authentication expert at Melbourne University] has questioned their expertise. ROBYN SLOGGETT: I don’t think either of them are Van Gogh experts, certainly not known to be such…[Director of the National Gallery of Victoria] DR GERARD VAUGHAN: It is a slightly offbeat picture. It doesn’t fit into the natural progression of Van Gogh’s work at that time because it was a moment in late ’86 and into early 1887 where he was experimenting with two or three different styles. In many ways, this is slipping back into his earlier realist style of the mid 1880s where he concentrates and uses these earthier ochre colours. It is a transitional picture.’”

“Conceived at special moments” and “sometimes repeating, sometimes anticipating themselves” are commonplace apologias for disqualifying incongruities in upgrades. In 1997 and 2000 the National Gallery claimed its Rubens Samson and Delilah did not look like any other Rubens in the gallery because it was “the only work in this collection typical of the artist when he had returned from Italy in 1608”. In truth the painting was unlike the (secure) one that immediately preceded it and unlike the (secure) one that immediately followed. If a Rubens, it would be the only one on which he employed flat brushes and painted finger tips with rectangular highlights. During ABC Television’s 7 August 2006 programme (“NGV’s Van Gogh Labelled a fake”), James Mollison, a former NGV director said: “This picture has been doubted by people very often.”

The upshot of the controversy was that the NGV director announced that such was the gallery’s confidence that the painting would be submitted (voluntarily) to full technical examination at the Van Gogh Museum. A year later the Herald Sun reported the attribution’s demise at the Van Gogh Museum:

“The Dutch team used X-radiograph, digital photographs, light microscopy and paint and thread analysis. Among conclusions were: THE work’s ground layer of white paint is not found in Van Gogh’s Antwerp and Paris works. ITS use of pure ochre is not found in other Van Gogh work. THE portrait shows just the top of the man’s shoulders. Van Gogh usually showed more of the clothes. “A COMBINATION of a fairly coarse and detailed painting style”, with more detail in the mouth, eyes, skin and beard than Van Gogh used. NO reference to the portrait or the sitter in Van Gogh’s extensive letters. The experts also noted no record of the work could be found before 1928, when it appeared at Berlin’s Galerie Goldschmidt and Co.”

The Rubens Samson and Delilah emerged in Germany the following year at Van Diemen and Benedict where it was offered as a Honthorst before being upgraded by Ludwig Burchard. Previously it had been attributed to Jan van den Hoecke, a follower of Rubens. Burchard had recently upgraded the supposed Rubens ink sketch design for the Samson and Delilah (see Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship ~ Part II: Paper – sometimes photographic – Fakes and the Demise of the Educated Eye ).

The Newly Upgraded Filippino Lippi


Above, Fig. 9. At first glance the awakened “Filippino Lippi” (above right) seems more plausible than the new Van Gogh drawings – especially when linked to a work attributed to the painter at the North Carolina Museum of Art (above left). In terms of palette, condition and design the two seem as peas in a pod but this closely related pair triggers no recollections of anything similar in the artist’s oeuvre. If their strikingly common format suggests original incorporation in a larger work, disjunctive variations in their parapet walls and stone inscription tablets dispels the possibility. Most inexplicably of all, the new upgrade is incongruously modernist in its emphatic planar and ‘on-the-picture-surface’ geometrical vocabulary.


Above, Fig. 10. In 1901 the painting of Saints Uraldus and Fridianus was sold (not as a Philippino Lippi but as a Masaccio) to an English aristocrat, the Earl of Ashburnham. As with the recently proposed Haddo House Raphael (Fig. 10 above), there is little on the panel’s back other than a label in English for an exhibition of “Early Italian Art” (Fig. 10 top). For the Carolina Saint Donatus, the museum offers only a date – “circa 1490” – and the identity of the picture’s donor, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. Such lacunae are perplexing because Filippino Lippi is a well-chronicled artist whose securely attributed works might easily be brought into direct comparison with the two more recent attributions.


Above, Fig. 11. The backs of attribution upgrades often prove problematic, and none was more so than the small panel “discovered” as a Duccio Madonna and Child (above right) in 1904 after having been bought in an antiques shop in Italy. It was then rarely seen until bought with fanfare (but no technical examinations) for $50m in 2004 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a blind “treaty” sale conducted by an auction house among a few leading museums shortly after the picture was withdrawn from an imminent comparative exhibition of Duccio and his followers that would have introduced the painting to many scholars for the first time and in an instructive context. That withdrawal – despite the painting’s inclusion in the catalogue – might have been made out of fear of repeating the demise of the owners’ second Duccio, as described below.

The back of the tiny picture had been cradled with no fewer than eight mahogany bars and when these were later removed at the Met. a hand-written ascription to Duccio’s pupil “Segna” was found on the bare poplar wood from which painted work had been stripped. The Met Duccio contained modern wire nails, a fact not acknowledged in the museum’s post-purchase technical examination reports. When we asked after the antiquity of the nails the museum claimed they had been inserted as repairs after the panel had been cradled in the 1930s. As “proof” of that unsupported chronology it was said that one of the nails had entered one of the mahogany bars. However, as we pointed out, the head of that particular nail had been visible on the front of the frame throughout all of picture’s photographically recorded history and, while some nail heads were visible most were not and therefore had been applied before the (now heavily distressed) frame was gessoed and gilded. Thus, the panel arrived in the world at the beginning of the 20th century with modern nails intersecting a cradle that concealed an awkward ascription on a stripped-down back.


Above, Fig 12. A face painted in the 14th century by a follower of Duccio (identified by Pèleo Bacci as Segna) is shown above to the right of the face of the Met’s Duccio as it was before restorations established the blue of the Virgin’s mantle to be azurite, not the requisite ultramarine. No one ever suggested that the painting on the right was by Duccio and no one judged the Met’s picture an autograph Duccio before Bernard Berenson’s wife (Mary) in 1904 with the support of Berenson’s protégé Frederic Mason Perkins. An earlier suggestion had been that it was a work of Sano di Pietro, as Frances Vieta discovered in researches at the Frick Library, New York, that were kindly made available to us.

In 1933 Perkins attributed a second Madonna and Child to Duccio and persuaded the then owner of the Met.’s Ducio (the Belgian collector, Adolphe Stoclet) to buy it. In 1989 that Duccio was loaned to the Cleveland Museum of Art and was there identified on technical examination by Gianni Mazzoni as a fake by Icilio Federico Joni who ran a forgery factory fronted by middlemen, one of whom was Berenson’s protégé Frederic Mason Perkins.


Above, Fig. 13. A cult of Supreme Art Historical Importance was activated around the Met. Duccio and part of this mythology rested on the picture’s supposedly miraculously well-preserved, little-restored, condition. Comparison of the photographs above showing its present state (right) and an earlier state (left) discloses how extensively the work has been repainted – note the altered design of the dominant eye, and the extensive reworking of the veil. The potentially falsifying nature of restorations when determining attributions remains a conspicuously under-examined area – as does the extent and nature of repainting on stripped-down “sleepers”. (But see “A restorer’s aim – The fine line between retouching and forgery”. For a fuller account of the Met.’s Duccio difficulties, see Michael Daley: “Buyer Beware”; “Good Buy Duccio?” and “Toxic Attributions?” in the Jackdaw magazine issues of Nov/Dec. 2008, Jan/Feb. 2009, and March/April 2009.)

The Newly Upgraded Filippino Lippi (continued)


Above, Fig. 14. With the two small “Filippino Lippi” pictures at Fig. 9 and below, top, said to have been painted between 1490 to 1494, precise stylistic comparisons can be made with securely attributed works in the oeuvre. What is believed to be Filippino Lippi’s self-portrait above was executed by the artist in 1481-1482 in the Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.


Above, Fig. 15. Filippino Lippi’s Apparition of the Virgin to St Bernard of 1480-86 was said by Bernard Berenson (in his 1938 revised Drawings of the Florentine Painters) to comprise “Filippino’s masterpiece, the last picture in which he is still a pure Quattrocentist, in which there is no sense of the Baroque.” Is it conceivable that some years later this artist painted the two small pictures shown here above the Apparition? Berenson reports that Filippino went on to betray excesses, not to purge and severely abstract his pictorial vocabulary: “Filippino’s Baroque, however had little in common with the qualities of the genuine [Baroque] style, and much with its worst vices. These were the sins of extravagance, of wantonness – the vulgarity of the newly enriched, who feel life is enhanced by the mere act of showy spending.”


Above, Fig. 16. At the top we see how Filippino Lippi painted books before 1486 in his Apparition of the Virgin to St Bernard and before his lapse into Baroque excesses. In this secure work we not only see great technical accomplishment but a fascination with the very means by which books were stitched together in assembled folded sections. Is it conceivable that after this tour de force celebration of the book binder’s craft skills Filippino should have been satisfied with the out-of-perspective simplifications of books in the Saint Uraldus? While the opened book has been painted in utter ignorance of book binding methods, the ochre coloured book at the bottom left of the pile has managed to anticipate to a remarkable degree the appearance of a neat modern machine-bound book.


Above, Fig. 17. Again, does the chasm of technique and sophistication in this further comparison from the Apparition and the Saint Uraldus not strain credulity at claims of a common author?


Above, Fig. 18. By 1493-94 the artist had completed his Madonna and Child with St Catherine of Alexandria and St Martin of Tours as above and we see precisely the over-elaboration Berenson castigated as Filippino’s squandering “like a nabob with a heady disorderliness all the decorative motives which the heritage of antiquity, the hard earnings of his precursors, and his own fancy had put into his hands.”


Above, Fig. 19. How conceivable is it that Filippino might, at the same short period, have made two so diverse treatments of a man parting drapery with an advancing left arm as in these two paintings? In the one the “Blanket-like drapery dear to Filippino” (in Berenson’s term), curves, twists and folds naturally across the body, while in the other it moves as if fabricated by a former sheet metal worker with little regard for any underlying body, or even for the means by which the glimpsed parts of the (wildly varying) decorative border of the cope might ever have been united as woven material. Why the arbitrary, asymmetrical placement of indeterminate embroidered decorations on the cope’s border? What holds the cope together? Is it a giant garnet or ruby, or a small tambourine? Where else in Filippino might we encounter such flattening abstractions and lax indeterminacy of depiction?


Above, Fig. 20. If the logic and treatment of Saint Donatus’ cope border (above, left) seems plausible and suitably understated, what might have carried the same artist to the Byzantine and conceptually irresolvable twin conundrums of the cope border as encountered on Saint Uraldus (above right)? What accounts for the very different depictions of the inscribed tablets on the parapet wall? If that of Saint Donatus is somewhat overly monumental and set uncomfortably close to the top of the parapet, at least it is sculpturally resolved and satisfactorily symmetrical along its horizontal axis with its twin decorative “butterfly wings” termini. Why, then, would the twinned tablets of Saints Uraldus and Fridianus meet in the middle with single butterfly-wing termini while leaving blank endings at the outer edges of the picture’s composition? Why are these two inscribed tablets skimped and devoid of projection when the saints above are greatly more dynamic and humanly engaged – almost as if in anticipation of Raphael’s later depicted dialogue between Aristotle and Plato?

Below, Fig. 21. What theological reading of Saint Uraldus’ life prompted the vast frilled neck lizard-like display of the cope’s pink lining below? If intentionally “Baroque” in its explosive ostentation and theatrical impact, why, then, its implausible combining with a geometric severity of draperies that are more snapped than folded?


With such bizarrely anomalous visual constructs, might it not be prudent to consider the waking “Filippino Lippi” sleeper as a possible product of the late 19th and early 20th century Italian forgeries boom that was tailor-made for British and American collectors? We know that many skilful artists were employed in that trade because when the Italian Government proposed stringent export taxes in 1903 to stem the country’s out-flow of art treasures, the Florentine art dealers association petitioned that the new laws would throttle the large and thriving trade in forged art and antiquities for foreign collectors. (Where did all those often excellent works go?)

At the December 2015 ArtWatch UK/LSE Law/NY Center for Art Law conference Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship (the proceedings of which will be published shortly), Professor Charles Hope pointed out how effectively 20th century scholarship had winnowed previously overblown numbers of Titians, Raphaels and such. Markets are good things and the London art market has long been a very good (much envied in Europe) force for Britain, but there are developing dangers. If perceptions were to grow that previously downgraded works are being systematically rehabilitated through “sleeper-discovery” mechanisms at a time when leading houses are fighting to the death for pole position on market share, confidence in the lots on offer might evaporate. Already, certain external structural changes are weakening the London market’s traditional and much-valued symbiotic relationship with disinterested scholarship. Increasing litigation by owners against dissenting independent scholars suppresses debate and frank expert appraisal. In a paper at our conference (“Throwing the baby out with the bath water – the Demise of Connoisseurship since the 1980s”), Brian Allen, former director of studies at the Mellon Centre, warned that recent changes of philosophy and views on connoisseurship in the academic world are greatly reducing the traditionally available body of disinterested academic expertise that counterbalances purely commercial interests:

“In my own field of British art the number of so-called ‘experts’ has now diminished alarmingly as the older generation dies off not to be replaced. It seems extraordinary to me that major artists such as Stubbs, Wright of Derby and Sir Thomas Lawrence, to name but three, don’t have an acknowledged expert to whom one can turn for a reasonably reliable, independent opinion. And this has also certainly happened in other specialist fields… Younger scholars nowadays, especially those in the universities, have almost no contact whatsoever with the art trade compared to fifty years ago. Yet for many years it was perfectly possible for the two worlds to co-exist harmoniously.”

Michael Daley 23 November 2016

The Art World’s Toxic Assets – Part III: Failures of Scrutiny

Within a couple of years of our warnings on the art world’s accumulating toxic assets of upgraded Old Master attributions, that sphere has been rocked by a spate of discovered/alleged old master forgeries that have recently deceived and embarrassed leading experts and major institutions alike.

In the midst of this turmoil, a Raphael-esque painting of insecure provenance (which is to say, of none before 1841), that relates to no known Raphael work, that is said to be good in parts and perhaps to have been a fragment of a lost unknown painting by Raphael, was launched to the world in the Guardian on October 3rd as a provisional “discovery” (“Raphael ‘copy’ once valued at £20 may be a £20m original”) to be shown on 5 October in a new three-part BBC4 series, “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces” [see Figs. 1a and 1b below]. The programmes were co-presented by an art historian, Jacky Klein, and a fast rising young player in the Old Masters attributions field, Bendor Grosvenor. Formerly of the Philip Mould Gallery and the BBC “Fake or Fortune” series, Grosvenor doubles as an art market commentator on a blog site, “Art History News” and, occasionally, for the Financial Times.


In the 8/9 October Weekend FT (“An eye for the real thing”) Dr Grosvenor held that the recently exposed failures of judgement constituted a scandal that threatens “to undermine the art world’s long established system of deducing authenticity”. He suggested that this danger stemmed from too great a reliance on the judgements of “independent, usually academic” experts who have published works on the artists they appraise, and from insufficient heed being paid to those (by implication like himself) who have not studied art history or published on artists but who, nonetheless, possess a “good eye”.


This recommendation was advanced even as Grosvenor admitted that he, along with France’s National Centre for Research and Restoration at the Louvre; a leading Louvre curator; numerous Frans Hals scholars; the Burlington Magazine; Christies (on scholarly advice); the Weiss gallery; and, Sotheby’s (at first), had been deceived by a recently exposed fake Frans Hals [Fig. 2, above], and, that he had come within a whisker of being deceived by a Gentileschi fake that snared the Guardian art critic and blogger, Jonathan Jones, and the National Gallery which had accepted the work as authentic when it was offered on loan (“Was the National Gallery scammed with a fake Old Master painting?”).


Where we held in the April 2006 ArtWatch UK Journal [Fig. 3, above] that too many in the art world were disregarding Mark Twain’s admonition to “buy land because they are not making it anymore” when buying upgraded school works as autograph masterpieces, Bendor Grosvenor often declares a state of rude good health in the old masters market. Because so many old masters have already been taken off the market and into museums, and because, by definition, old master paintings are no longer being produced, market growth increasingly depends on the discovery of “sleepers” – which is to say, of suspected hitherto unrecognised major works whose true identities will emerge during dealers’ un-monitored, sometimes radical stripping-down, repairing and retouching of paintings. (More recently we published a post that indicated means by which restorations might slide towards outright fakery in cases which, coincidentally, involved earlier “Frans Hals” paintings. See “A restorer’s aim – The fine line between retouching and forgery”.) On 13 August 2014 we called in a letter to The Times for a statutory requirement for vendors to disclose all that is known on a work’s provenance and conservation history [see Fig. 4, below]


On the BBC4 series “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces” Bendor Grosvenor got very excited at the prospect of a distinctly Raphael-esque painting in Haddo House in Scotland being an autograph Raphael [Fig. 1a]. BBC coverage of the visual arts rarely airs dissenting voices and this programme was constructed with many narrative layers all of which sang the same encouraging tune: Although this work has little provenance we should be assured by the fact that it had been bought in the early 19th century as an autograph Raphael by the 4th Earl of Aberdeen, George Hamilton-Gordon (1784-1860), who, in his early years and travels, was an impassioned devotee of the classical arts of Greece and Italy, and who somehow managed, despite being “flat broke”, to acquire a fine collection through a “shrewd nose for bargains”. Particular assurance was seen in the fact that the picture had been exhibited as a Raphael at the British Institution in 1841. However, an old hand-written label attached to one of two oak bars that reinforced the back of the poplar panel says, in English, “The Virgin Mary, Raffael or after Raffael” [see Fig. 1b]. As that is the only documentation (other than an indecipherable fragment of a wax seal) on the back of an assumed 500 years old panel, it would seem likely that the label was present when the painting was exhibited in 1841 as a Raphael. If it had not been present in 1841, why would its owner have added such a weakening document to his own painting?

The question of the label’s origin is the more perplexing because, as we now learn from Dr Grosvenor, the canny Scottish Fourth Earl of Aberdeen, George Hamilton-Gordon, had not bought the painting while on his early travels in Italy because he had not bought it all. Rather, he had inherited it more than a generation later from his brother, Robert Gordon, when he died in 1847 (by choking on a fish bone). The provenance thus descends entirely from Robert Gordon who was born in 1791 and would not likely have bought the painting (from whomever – for no one knows) much before 1810. Although Robert Gordon was the owner when the picture was exhibited at the British Institution, there are no family inventories listing the painting before 1867 and none thereafter lists it as a Raphael. In two entries it is priced at £80 and later at £20. On both occasions it was listed as a copy. In the television programme, the co-presenters describe seeing their perceived challenge as being to reverse a hypothecated “increasing scepticism” with which the painting was viewed after George Gordon’s death in 1860. But what if the Raphael attribution had always been appreciated within the family as being uncertain? Or, might not a contrary reading have been considered of the possibility that it only became politic for independent scholars to dissent on a claimed Raphael attribution after the death of the fourth earl who had been an extremely powerful and well-connected political figure – and one with with a sarcastic turn to boot?

Against the fragmentary picture’s distinctly weak provenance, it was claimed (- but not demonstrated) that a close fit existed with secure Raphael Madonnas. The belief that this work might be an autograph Raphael received high level scholarly and (implicit) institutional endorsement as Bendor Grosvenor is filmed ascending the grand stairs of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing in the company of the Gallery’s former director, Sir Nicholas Penny. The camera catches the pair passing the monumental carved Roman Letters “RAPHAEL” [see Fig. 5, below] and jumps in a nanosecond to a painting in the Gallery’s substantial Raphael holdings – but not to one its finest, instead to the least secure, most recent, so-called Madonna of the Pinks that had been attributed to Raphael in 1992 by Nicholas Penny when a curator at the Gallery, and that was later bought by the Gallery for nearly £35millon after a public appeal. Towards the end of the film [Fig. 6, below] Nicholas Penny places the putative Grosvenor-Raphael, somewhere between “probably by Raphael” and “by Raphael” and suggests that with a little “more time and courage” he might well go the whole hog.


Above, (top – and running clockwise), Figure 5: Bendor Grosvenor passes the monumental carved “RAPHAEL” in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing; the National Gallery’s (disputed) Raphael Madonna of the Pinks; the Bendor Grosvenor-proposed Haddo House Raphael Madonna, before restoration; and, the National Gallery’s Madonna of the Pinks, as presently framed. Above, Fig. 6: Jacky Klein, Bendor Grosvenor and Nicholas Penny seen examining the Haddo House Madonna in the 5 October BBC4 “Britian’s Lost Masterpieces” programme.

Although a caveat was offered in the programme (and reported in the Guardian) with an admission that there had not been the time and money to run all appropriate tests, Grosvenor nonetheless claimed that all the evidence seemed to point in the right direction. As if to dispel any doubts, the television programme (which was produced by Tern TV and commissioned by Mark Bell, Head of Arts Commissioning, BBC, under the Executive Producer for the BBC, Emma Cahusac) carried a strong implicit message that the Grosvenor-proposed Raphael is as sound as the National Gallery’s Penny-attributed Raphael Madonna of the Pinks. We would counter that, with both pictures, such assurances were misleading and that the principal evidence on the strength of these attributions is found in the look of the pictures, which testify in different ways[ see Fig. 5] against Raphael’s authorship, as will be shown in Part IV.

We would add two points here. First, that Dr Grosvenor seems unaware of the extent to which the Madonna of the Pinks had been rejected as by Raphael in the 19th century and more recently by scholars including Professor James Beck, the founder of ArtWatch International who devoted three chapters of his last (2006) book, From Duccio to Raphael – Connoisseurship in Crisis, to problems with the present attribution [see Fig. 7, below]. Although Nicholas Penny is a highly respected Renaissance specialist, and his Raphael attribution had been fittingly proposed in a long, thorough scholarly article in the Burlington Magazine (“Raphael’s Madonna dei garofani” Rediscovered, 134, 1992) that had impressed Professor James Beck, the attribution itself received only majority approval from a group of specialist scholars assembled at the National Gallery. Contrary to initial Gallery press claims, there had been no firm consensus of scholarly opinion – a fifth of the invited scholars dissented from the attribution when questioned directly by Beck.


At the time, we pointed out that the then majority for support had reversed over a century’s scholarly consensus of judgement. The Penny-Raphael had been rejected as early as 1854 by Gustav Friedrich Waagen as “the small picture in the Camuccini collection which I do not consider to be original. The tone of the flesh has something insipid and heavy. The Treatment makes me suspect a Netherlandish hand.” Professor Martin Kemp rejected the Penny-Raphael Madonna on the grounds of her most disconcerting and uncharacteristic teeth-baring opened mouth: “In reality, for any Renaissance woman to be portrayed showing her teeth, American-style, is unthinkable”. (Leonardo, Oxford/New York, 2005, p. 242.)

There were structural problems with the picture, as well as stylistic incongruities. In the 2003 ArtWatch UK Journal 29, we drew attention to the disturbing fact that the National Gallery’s Madonna of the Pinks Raphael – like the Gallery’s (challenged) Rubens Samson and Delilah painting – had lost vital physical and documentary evidence. With both paintings the original, evidence-bearing back is missing, as is also the case in the drawing that has been dubbed “La Bella Principessa” and given to Leonardo da Vinci by Martin Kemp, even after it emerged that the supposedly 500 years old work had been sold anonymously and without a shred of provenance by the widow of a restorer who was the work’s first known and sole owner. That atypical drawing on an atypical medium has been (unusually) glued down onto an oak panel, thereby preventing an appraisal of drawings known to be present on its reverse.

The Samson and Delilah panel painting had been planed down to wafer thinness and glued onto a modern sheet of blockboard in an operation of which no record exists. The back of the Madonna of the Pinks was “polished”, coated and given three wax seals in the 19th century when in the hands of its first known owners, the notorious Camuccini family
of artists, copyists, restorers, art dealers and art smugglers. We cited much else that was problematic about the Madonna of the Pinks:

“It possesses, for example, an irregular border of unpainted wood that is ‘unusual’ for Raphael. The picture’s unusually highly-wrought finish, ‘jewel-like, as Dr Ekserdjian and associates put it; made up of ‘tiny, almost invisible brushstrokes’, as the National Gallery puts it, is said to have been the result of the work’s especial execution for the close contemplation of a nun…Even if this fanciful explanation for the unusual brushwork were to be accepted, it would not also explain the picture’s atypical colour scheme [which] Dr Penny suggests, may reflect ‘a particular moment of indebtedness by Raphael to Leonardo…’ ”

We complained that “Dr Penny’s case seems to rest on the belief that the outcome of technical analysis carried out at the National Gallery somehow displaces or neutralises all accumulations of otherwise awkward evidence…A manifest weakness of Dr Penny’s case is that no technical analysis or even photographic comparison is offered on any of the picture’s forty or so rival contenders…” It was later learned that scientific analysis had identified the wood of this most unusual artefact as being, not poplar, as might have been expected, or even a fruit wood, as is the case with one large Raphael panel, but yew – a wood nowhere encountered in Raphael or, so far as we know, in any Italian Renaissance painting. As will be seen in Part IV, the proposed Grosvenor-Raphael bears many handicaps.

Michael Daley, 20 October 2016