Britain’s Lost Masterpieces: behind the scenes with Dr Bendor Grosvenor

Hidden in Britain’s huge public collection of more than 200,000 paintings are some unrecognised and unseen masterpieces. Ahead of a new series on BBC Four, Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, art historian and dealer Dr Bendor Grosvenor tells Jonathan Wright about trawling through a vast catalogue of the nation’s pictures to uncover hidden treasures… 

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Q: Can you tell us how the series came about and how you became involved?
 
A: The starting point is the Public Catalogue Foundation, an amazing endeavour now known as Art UK. 
 
More than a decade ago, the former banker and diplomat Fred Hohler decided that he was going to photograph every painting that belonged to the British public collection. 
 
He had gone along to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to see a painting that he knew they had in their collection, but he was told it was in storage and that he couldn’t see it. He started ranting in the gift shop apparently, and decided to make it his mission to photograph all the mystery pictures that were in storage. 
 
Eighty per cent of Britain’s public collection is in storage at any one time, or at least not easily accessible. But about five years ago, the catalogue all started to be put online. That allowed anoraks like me to go combing through all these pictures that had never really been properly assessed before, and inevitably to make some interesting discoveries.
 
Q: Are we talking about paintings that are misattributed or not thought to be of historical significance? 
 
A: It’s interesting. Once pictures get “lost” in the system of art history – often when they get put into storage – they can take decades to emerge again. The internet has allowed them to be seen again with fresh eyes for the first time. We’re dealing with some 210,000 pictures in the public collection, more than 40,000 of which are either unattributed or the subject is unknown. So there’s huge scope for artists, or sitters in portraits, to be identified. 
 
For this particular series we’re having to keep news of the various pictures we may have discovered close to our chests for the moment. But other discoveries have been made as a result of the Art UK website: a while ago I found a van Dyck painting in the Bowes Museum in County Durham. We made a programme for BBC Two’s The Culture Show about it. I don’t think that picture was even framed – it was loose and didn’t have a ‘stretcher’. It was very dirty and so the programme followed its cleaning and the research into its provenance.
 

Jacky Klein and Dr Bendor Grosvenor. (BBC/Tern Television)
 
Q: Can you talk about how it got lost and how you found it? 
 
A: You inevitably have to start with a photograph online. The ones on Art UK are actually pretty good; you can access them in pretty high resolution. There may be something that catches your eye about a painting, but judging it from a photograph is very difficult, so you really need to go and see it in the flesh.
 
There are so many things that can cause a painting to lose its identity, to become an orphan of art history. It may be very dirty, which means the colours get muted and you can’t see the artist’s original intention. It may be covered in later ‘overpaint’, because remember we’re dealing with pictures that are 300 or 400 years old, often more. Inevitably over time pictures can get ‘improved’, or repaired in a bad way, or even altered by a different artist altogether. 
 
When you look at the photo online, there may just be something about it that intrigues you. The description might say it’s by an unknown artist, but you might recognise the way a head is painted, or a particular sitter, and you go from there.
 
Q: What was the story behind the van Dyck work [a portrait of Olive Boteler Porter, the wife of van Dyck’s patron, Endymion Porter]?
 
A: It was bought as a van Dyck by the Bowes Museum in the late 19th century, but it didn’t go on display very much and became rather dirty. It had also suffered a bad restoration at some point. The worst part of it was that the sitter had one of her eyes badly restored with a lot of overpaint. The effect of that made her look like she had a bit of a squint. When you’re judging the attribution of a painting, especially in portraiture, because you’re judging with the human eye, it’s very difficult to get past anomalies like that. 
 
Q: What happens after you’ve potentially identified a picture? In the series, how involved are you in the restoration process?
 
A: It’s not every museum’s idea of a good thing for TV cameras to turn up, knock on the door and say, “Can we take this painting away and play with it please?” But we’ve been very lucky – the institutions agreed to let us have the pictures restored and do research ourselves.
 

Dr Bendor Grosvenor and Jacky Klein outside the Ulster Museum, Belfast. (BBC/Tern Television)
 
Q: Is there a feeling of local pride with these collections? How might this bring local museums alive for people? 
 
A: I think that’s our main raison d’etre here: to swing a lamp on the richness of local regional collections, which for reasons of funding and space don’t get the chance to show all their treasures at once. Hopefully we can energise local audiences to go out and see their museums for the first time, by drawing their attention to an exciting discovery. That’s really what we’re all about. 
 
Q: Tell us about working with your co-presenter, art historian Jacky Klein
 
A: I’m so reactionary when it comes to art, I run out of steam in about 1830. Jacky knows everything there is to know about modern, contemporary art, so that’s been quite a revelation to me. She’s shown me things in local collections that I’m ashamed to say I wouldn’t really pay much attention to, and has educated me marvelously. 
 
Q: Is it possible for a rediscovered picture to completely re-engineer our view of art history, or is that a little too fanciful? 
 
A: No, I don’t think it is. Sometimes, a picture can act almost like a Rosetta Stone, in terms of unlocking our understanding of an aspect of an artist’s career. If we discover a portrait of a particular sitter that we didn’t think that artist had painted, then suddenly you have a new connection that can fill in a biographical gap. Similarly, you could find an artist’s different interpretation of a subject or a sketch they did for a painting that was lost. 
 
It’s far from the case that we know most things in art history – with some artists we’re really barely scratching the surface. When you discover a new painting, it’s the most crucial evidence you can find. 
 
Bendor Grosvenor was speaking to BBC History Magazine’s TV editor Jonathan Wright. Britain’s Lost Masterpieces starts tonight on BBC Four at 9pm.
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