Regular viewers of BBC Four’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces will know that the programme has featured some dramatic discoveries. A Rubens in Glasgow, a possible Raphael in Sussex, a likely Rembrandt in Devon…. So it was with some excitement that I opened an email last autumn from Dr Bendor Grosvenor, asking if he could come and look at some pictures in store here at Birmingham Museums.
Britain’s Lost Masterpieces is now in its fourth series. Each week, art historian Bendor and social historian Emma Dabiri visit public collections in search of important pictures which have been overlooked or misattributed. Through a process of research, scientific analysis, and cleaning and conservation, the paintings and their histories are gradually revealed.
Bendor had spotted the Birmingham pictures on Art UK , a showcase for publicly-held art which features works from over 3,200 British institutions. There were two paintings that had potential as ‘lost masterpieces’. One was catalogued as a copy of a landscape by 18th-century British artist Thomas Gainsborough, and another was by an unknown Flemish painter, unreadably dark in places and obscured by a layer of old, yellowed varnish. Bendor thought the Gainsborough ‘copy’ could be the real thing, and suspected that the Flemish picture was by Jan Brueghel the Elder, one of the most important artists working in northern Europe in the early 17th century.
Neither painting was on display, the ‘Gainsborough’ because it was thought to be a copy rather than an original, and the ‘Brueghel’ because it had what art historians tactfully call ‘condition issues’. The wooden panel on which it was painted had split in two along the join, it had been heavily overpainted at some point in the past, and its surface was very dirty. Both pictures were safe in storage and their condition was stable, but neither would have been a priority for conservation treatment or display if Bendor hadn’t suggested them for Britain’s Lost Masterpieces.
Over a period of months, the pictures underwent scientific analysis and were cleaned and restored at Simon Gillespie Studio in London. While the paintings were being conserved, Bendor explored their art-historical context and Emma investigated the wider context of the ‘Gainsborough’, finding out about the work of Birmingham charity the John Feeney Charitable Trust and its Victorian founder John Feeney, whose bequest to the city funded the picture in 1924.
In April, staff and supporters of Birmingham Museums gathered to hear about the research and see the results of what Bendor called ‘the most extraordinary transformation we’ve had on Britain’s Lost Masterpieces’.
We’ve all really enjoyed working with Bendor, Emma, Simon Gillespie studio, and the Britain’s Lost Masterpieces team, and we’re excited to share the results of the programme. Both paintings will be on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery after our episode has aired on 6 November: the ‘Brueghel’ in Gallery 24 and ‘Gainsborough’ in Gallery 23. Were Bendor’s instincts about the pictures right? Watch the programme (at 9pm on 6th November on BBC 4) – or visit the Museum – to find out!