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Solving art’s mysteries online

3 November 2017

The most remarkable recent initiative drawing attention to Britain’s rich holdings of publicly owned paintings has been the launch of Art UK, a website which provides freely available, digitised images of these works to the public. In the project’s early days (Art UK launched originally as ‘Your Paintings’ in 2011), the basic information attending each painting depended largely on the records of its owners, and it was apparent that much could be done to add to and improve on this.

So in March 2014 another online network, Art Detective, was established to enable the input of anyone who could supply specific knowledge about individual paintings. As well as specialists, ordinary members of the public have been encouraged to contribute by proposing discussions to establish attributions and dates of paintings, or to identify the subjects and locations depicted. Once the owners have agreed to a public discussion, the suggestion is assigned to one of 27 groups, each headed by a specialist to monitor and lead it through to a conclusion, the result of which is conveyed to the collection that owns the work.

A Terrible Shipwreck (1870), T.L. Mourilyan. Compton Verney

A Terrible Shipwreck (1870), T.L. Mourilyan Compton Verney

As a former curator of paintings for nearly a quarter of century in Liverpool and Glasgow, I always welcomed additions from outside to the knowledge of works in my care. Personally, using Art Detective has enabled me to match pictures recorded in contemporary exhibition catalogues with those on Art UK and thus to suggest their likely date of execution. Local topographical knowledge has also made it possible for me to identify sites in Kent, Sussex, and elsewhere which have been depicted in paintings. For example, I recognised the beach between Walmer and Kingsdown, which I know well from nearly a decade of regular walks, as the site of a work known as A Terrible Shipwreck at Compton Verney. I followed this up with others who had relevant knowledge, and we managed to identify the artist as the naval officer Thomas Longley Mourilyan (1840–1922), who was born in Deal just south of the beach.

Margate in the Time of Turner (1930), Walter Richard Sickert. Kirklees Museums and Galleries

Margate in the Time of Turner (1930), Walter Richard Sickert. Kirklees Museums and Galleries

So far over 300 discussions have resulted from the project, 183 of which have led to concrete conclusions. Paintings from over four centuries have come under debate, from masterpieces such as an allegorical ceiling by Tintoretto in the National Trust’s Kingston Lacy, the exact subject of which has yet to be settled, to portraits of civic officials of the recent past. A painting by Sickert, previously thought to be of Ramsgate, has been shown to be one of his ‘Echoes’ series, and is now confirmed as being Margate in the Time of Turner of c. 1931–32. A supposed Alpine scene has been shown to depict a Norwegian fjord – probably Hardanger fjord at Ullensvang – and possibly to be the work of a German trained in Düsseldorf. A Wandsworth garden depicted in one painting has been identified as the artist’s own.

The Forge of Vulcan (17th century), attributed to Ary de Vois. Abingdon Guildhall

The Forge of Vulcan (17th century), attributed to Ary de Vois. Abingdon Guildhall

Portraits, including a work by Rubens, the sitter for which has yet to be established, have been the most frequent subjects for discussion. Marine and river subjects have also excited much interest. The career of E.W. Cocks, a painter of early balloon flights, has been elucidated. One of the longest-running questions pertains to the location of a mill in a painting in Manchester City Art Gallery, which despite many clues in its representation has so far resisted identification. Meanwhile, the likely location and artist of a picture of an ironworks in Central Europe is well on the way to being established. A mid 17th-century Forge of Vulcan in Abingdon Guildhall has been found to be by the Leiden painter Ary de Vois.

Portrait of a Lady in a Black Dress with a Cameo on a Red Ribbon. Artist unknown. Peterhouse, University of Cambridge

Portrait of a Lady in a Black Dress with a Cameo on a Red Ribbon Artist unknown. Peterhouse, University of Cambridge

A few other current discussions are worth noting. A portrait of a lady in a black dress wearing a cameo in Peterhouse College, University of Cambridge, has elicited a very large number of contributions. It is generally agreed that it dates from c. 1845–55, but several possible candidates connected with this predominantly male institution have been put forward without any being generally accepted; nor has it been conclusively shown to be a mourning portrait. The authorship has not been much explored, although it is certainly by a professional artist. A way forward might be an investigation into the portraitists of the day who had connections in Cambridge or East Anglia.

Another problem that should be soluble is the attribution of a late 17th- or 18th-century picture in the Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection, there described as The Infancy of Bacchus. The painting is of some quality. It is probably by an Italian artist or a Germanic artist who spent some time in Italy.

Laomedon Refusing Payment to Poseidon and Apollo (17th century), artist unknown. The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

Laomedon Refusing Payment to Poseidon and Apollo (17th century), artist unknown. The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

A very different painting in the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, poses a similar problem. Laomedon refusing to pay Poseidon and Apollo was attributed to Salvator Rosa when first recorded in the late 18th century. Could it instead be by a northern painter working in Italy, such as the Dane Eberhardt or Bernhard Keilhau (1624–87), also known as Monsù Bernardo?

Another picture of some quality still requiring a secure attribution is a portrait of a rheumatologist in the Royal Free Hospital, now identified as of Charles Brehmer Heald (1882–1974). Is this picture by a French or Scandinavian artist? It probably dates from the period 1918–20.

Charles Brehmer Heald (c. 1920–25), artist unknown. © Royal Free Hospital; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Charles Brehmer Heald (c. 1920–25), artist unknown. Royal Free Hospital

Explore the ongoing discussions, and find out more about completed ones, on Art UK’s Art Detective website.

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