Those Old Masters knew a thing or two

BBC4 had a welcome repeat on last night in the shape of Britain’s Lost Masterpieces. A kind of spin-off from the more glitzy Fake or Fortune, this is in many ways a more satisfying series, fronted by art expert Bendor Grosvenor and historian Emma Dabiri, which tries to trace lost artworks that are buried in the Britain’s less well-known galleries and collections. Unlike its more famous cousin it relies less on wild surmise and a touching conviction in its own theories, and more on painstaking detective work and above all, science.

Last night’s episode featured this portrait of George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, in the collection at Glasgow’s Pollok House. It was listed as a later copy, but Grosvenor was quietly convinced it was by Peter Paul Rubens and set out to try to prove it.

I won’t say if he succeeded or not because that would spoil the surprise. What I will say is that the minute he pulled the portrait out from its storage rack, I was rooting for him. Because even beneath centuries of dirt, old varnish and over-paint, it was beautiful. The eyes danced out of the treacly gloom as though the sitter was real, standing in a dark corner looking out at you. The power of that gaze was staggering.

This is an effect Dave and I first noticed on a visit to the National Gallery of Ireland on a scorching day in Dublin a few years ago. Intriguingly, they’d set up several galleries with an unusual format, contrasting a work by a known Old Master (including Caravaggio) with a series of later copies and even fakes. In every case the ‘real thing’ jumped off the wall at us, seeming to glow with an inner life that the others lacked.

It was a fascinating introduction to just what makes the ‘greats’ great. And without giving away the result of the Buckingham portrait, it’s something Grosvenor has used to great effect on these programmes before.


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