Nothing is more exciting to a biographer than the ‘discovery’ of a ‘missing’ portrait of their subject. But all too often, in their eagerness for new material, even scholars can be duped. Fortunately, scientific methods are making it easier to spot the fakes, as the National Gallery’s new exhibition proves
• Lisa Jardine
• The Guardian, Saturday 19 June 2010
I remember as an undergraduate being impressed by the iconoclastic critic John Berger’s argument that a fake old master ought to fetch as much on the open market as the real thing, since even the experts could not tell the difference between them. According to this way of looking at things, the art market ought not to care about authenticity as long as its profits remain high, and collectors are happy to hang forgeries on their living-room walls.
The point is not just that the forgery passes for authentic, however. Adding spurious evidence to the store of available data on an artist also skews our understanding of their life and work, misleading us into taking as “fact” something merely conjured cunningly up by the vivid imagination of the forger. What makes this all the more historically damaging is that counterfeiters tend to feed off the public’s hunger to know about particularly high-profile figures with gaps in their biographies.
The more celebrated the individual, the more eagerly the public seizes on documentary evidence that purports to belong to them. Of no British public figure is this more true than William Shakespeare. In December 1794 a young man named William-Henry Ireland presented his antiquarian collector father with a manuscript he claimed to have discovered in a trunk in a country house belonging to a “gentleman of large fortune”. The manuscript document was a mortgage deed for the Globe Theatre at Bankside, signed and sealed by Shakespeare himself. Since Shakespeare’s death in 1616 almost nothing beyond his infamous will (leaving his wife his second best bed) had surfaced in the way of reliable documentary evidence concerning Britain’s best-loved playwright. Ireland senior, who had spent his life searching for Shakespearian memorabilia, was entirely convinced that the deed his son had found was the real thing.
Now Ireland junior produced a number of other official documents and literary fragments in quick succession which further fleshed out Shakespeare’s hitherto shadowy life. There were letters exchanged between Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton, and a note from Elizabeth I to Shakespeare signed in her unmistakeable hand, thanking him for the “pretty verses” he had sent her. Eventually Ireland even produced a transcript of the entire text of a lost play, laced with poetic echoes of Hamlet and King Lear.
The news of young Ireland’s discoveries caused a sensation. Samuel Johnson’s biographer James Boswell examined the documents and pronounced them glorious and certainly authentic. So did numerous other literary luminaries. Entire chapters were added to Shakespeare’s life story based on the counterfeit documents. Ireland finally overreached himself and was unmasked as a fraudster when the so-called lost play (which he had written himself) went into production and was booed off the London stage at its first performance.
Today it is obvious to anyone with even a little knowledge of early manuscripts that every one of the documents Ireland produced was a clumsy forgery. They neither look nor read like genuine items from the period. Ireland had used old endpapers from second-hand books, written on them in plausibly faded ink, and attached seals filched from the law office in which he worked. Careful examination ought easily to have exposed these obvious counterfeiting devices. But for a time the literary world was convinced, because critics and the general public so badly wanted the purported finds to be genuine.
Archives and documentary evidence on their own can get one only so far in deciding securely on the attribution of a painting or the identity of a sitter. In recent years, fortunately, the increasing use of a range of new scientific methods to examine paintings and documents has given a whole extra dimension both to uncovering fakes and mistakes and to turning up exciting discoveries in gallery vaults and museum archives.
The exhibition Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries, which opens shortly at the National Gallery in London, brings together a number of works of art whose very identity has been altered using these new scientific methods. The late 15th-century painting by an unknown northern European artist, Portrait of Alexander Mornauer, for example, was for centuries described as a work by Hans Holbein, court painter to Henry VIII. When the National Gallery acquired the painting in 1990 and subjected it to scientific analysis, it was discovered that a layer of cobalt blue paint – typical of surviving Holbein portraits – had been applied over the original brown of the background. Further examination showed that the style of the sitter’s headgear had been carefully modified from a cylindrical fez-like hat to a neat cap, again more like the hat that might be worn by the sitter in a genuine Holbein. It appears in this case that the original work had been altered for an 18th-century buyer at a time when the work of Holbein was in great demand.
If enough is at stake, however, even overwhelming scientific evidence will not persuade those determined to hold on to cherished beliefs about the authenticity or otherwise of cherished images. Once again, Shakespeare provides us with a striking example of such tenacity. In 2006, after three and a half years of intensive research, using all the latest scientific methods, on six portraits that were all supposed to be genuine likenesses of Shakespeare, Dr Tarnya Cooper of the National Portrait Gallery announced the experts’ findings. All but one of the portraits had been conclusively shown to be inauthentic. Only the so-called Chandos portrait showed Shakespeare’s true features. Even then, Cooper stressed that the attribution remained tentative: “It would be lovely to be categorical. It is certainly fairly likely we are looking at the face of Shakespeare, but we’d need a document or a signature to prove it beyond all doubt.”
Of the other five portraits, scrupulous analysis revealed that two were fakes. Analysis of paint samples from the Flower portrait, owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, revealed the presence of a yellow pigment which did not come on to the market until the early 19th century. In the case of the Janssen portrait, conservation work carried out on the painting found that the sitter’s hairline had been modified to make him look more “Shakespearian” and a fake inscription had been added.
This has not, however, put an end to hopeful claims to have finally unearthed Shakespeare’s “true” likeness, based on fairly dubious circumstantial evidence. Only last year, another contender was produced, this time a painting in the family collection of art restorer Alec Cobbe. This portrait allegedly closely resembled the engraving on the frontispiece of the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays, long accepted as having been taken from a contemporary painting. The distinguished Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells was convinced: “My excitement has grown with the amount of evidence about the provenance of the painting. I am willing to go 90% that this is the only lifetime portrait of Shakespeare.” As someone who had spent an entire career in the hope of a discovery of this dramatic kind, he had let his excitement get the better of him. Cooper was more levelheaded. The National Portrait Gallery technical expert brusquely dismissed the painting as “more likely to represent the courtier Sir Thomas Overbury”.
Fraudsters prey upon our hopeful expectations. The honest mistakes scholars make, too, are most likely to happen where the misidentification gives them and the public at large a long-lost and much sought-after item from the oeuvre of an important individual, to whom an expert has devoted long years of patient study. I have myself had firsthand experience of “discovering” a painting that was known once to have existed, but had been “missing” for generations. And I have also had my hopes eventually dashed, when someone conclusively demonstrated that my convincing find was in fact a mistake. In 2002 I was completing a biography of the scientist, polymath and close friend of Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke. Notoriously, no portrait of Hooke survives – supposedly because Sir Isaac Newton, who was president of the Royal Society when Hooke died in 1703, disliked him so heartily that he had the two existing portraits, which contemporary witnesses tell us hung in their premises, destroyed.
My hunch had always been that the portraits would have been put away somewhere and “lost” rather than destroyed. So when I came upon a little-known late-17th-century portrait in the Natural History Museum, which matched descriptions I had of what Hooke looked like in middle age, it instantly caught my attention. The portrait bore the inscription “John Ray”, but was clearly not of this botanist contemporary of Hooke’s, since numerous other images of Ray survive and this portrait in no way resembled any of them. The records attributed the portrait to Mary Beale, whom documentary evidence shows to have executed a lost portrait of Hooke’s colleague and friend Robert Boyle.
My pulse began to race. I studied the painting closely, first in reproduction and then physically, with the enthusiastic help of an art-historian friend and the expert advice of the archivist at the Natural History Museum. The museum records showed that the painting was received as a bequest from Sir William Watson, a celebrated 18th-century experimentalist at the Royal Society, whose discoveries in the field of electricity were made at the same time as those of Benjamin Franklin. He left the painting to the trustees of the British Museum in 1787: “I give and bequeath my Picture of the late learned and ingenious Dr John Ray painted by Mrs Beale a Scholar of Sir Peter Lely to the trustees of the British Museum to be placed if the Trustees think proper in the Room of the said Museum wherein Ray’s Bust is already placed.”
The Mercers’ Company provided a grant for the portrait to be cleaned, which revealed that the “John Ray” inscription was indeed a later addition; several entries in Hooke’s diary convinced me that he was in the right place at the right time and likely to have been the sitter. I even believed I could now detect the slightest trace of a bent back – contemporary descriptions refer to Hooke’s curvature of the spine. The newly cleaned painting was displayed as part of an anniversary exhibition on Hooke at Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science, and a visitor poll showed that two-thirds of those who responded judged the portrait to be of Hooke.
For close to a year I bombarded everyone I could think of with photos of the painting for confirmation or otherwise of my “find”. As far as I know, they were all persuaded. One Hooke expert even pointed out to me the family resemblance between my portrait and a photograph of a known descendent. Other scholars noted additional tell-tale traces which they believed supported my identification. I used the painting as the cover image for my biography of Hooke, though I cautioned in my introduction that there was always the possibility that somebody might be able to show that I had been mistaken.
Two years later somebody did just that. An American historian of science identified the man in the painting as Jan Baptist van Helmont, a 17th-century Flemish alchemist, on the basis of the resemblance to an engraving of Van Helmont on the title page of his posthumous works. Since there is no surviving portrait of Van Helmont, this was a pretty exciting identification, too. Further investigation suggested that my “Hooke” portrait might have been one of a series of paintings of distinguished scientists, by an unknown artist, commissioned for the invalid intellectual Lady Conway by Van Helmont’s son, Francis Mercury van Helmont. The younger Van Helmont had been her scientific mentor and personal physician in the 1670s, and lived with her on her Warwickshire estate. I publicly conceded that I had let my own enthusiasm get the better of me and been misled.
However, it is embarrassing for me to have to report that a quick trawl on Google Images reveals that the portrait I discovered – now convincingly reidentified as Van Helmont – continues to be widely used on any number of websites as a portrait of Robert Hooke, to the considerable annoyance of scholars who know that my identification was mistaken. I fear that some of them consider that, however genuine my mistake was, I am now at fault for failing to stop my wrongly identified portrait from continuing to circulate.
The discovery of an unknown piece of data or material about a prominent figure, be they author, artist or sitter, makes it possible to enlarge our understanding of them. With the help of modern technical research methods, new items are likely to be added to the rich remains of the past. At the same time, these resources will also eliminate as spurious some items long thought to be genuine. Among these, some will be genuinely mistaken attributions or identifications, others will be downright forgeries.
In the end, those of us who look to the past for knowledge helpful to our understanding of the way things are today will go on taking the risk of the outside chance of finding something exciting and new. I am still on the lookout for that lost portrait of Hooke, just as Stanley Wells will keep looking for something more lively than the Chandos portrait to identify as the likeness of Shakespeare. As for the forgers, they will always be able to find those willing, at least for a while, to be duped.
Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries is at the National Gallery, London WC2, from 30 June-12 September. nationalgallery.org.uk