In a side-room at the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square hangs a small oval portrait of a moustachioed man in a gilt baroque frame.
The picture is the last self-portrait attributed to the Flemish Old Master Sir Anthony van Dyck, a spectacular work deemed so important the gallery launched an urgent appeal in 2013 to raise the £10million needed to save it for the nation.
The ‘Van Dyck selfie’ as it became known certainly caught the public imagination. The portrait gallery recruited its patron, the Duchess of Cambridge, to become the ‘face’ of the campaign and around 10,000 small donors answered the call.
Between them, they chipped in nearly £1.5million, alongside grants from the National Lottery, the Art Fund charity and a number of wealthy benefactors.
Billed as ‘a masterpiece for everyone’, the Van Dyck was then sent on a three-year nationwide tour so that donors and taxpayers could see their new purchase for themselves.
Few of them will have questioned the authenticity of this multi-million-pound masterpiece, but then why should they?
The controversial painting was believed to be a self-portrait of Van Dyck but that is now under dispute
The self-portrait was backed by one of the most prestigious galleries in the country.
Yet as anyone who has seen the BBC’s popular Fake Or Fortune show presented by Fiona Bruce and urbane Pall Mall art dealer Philip Mould will know, the world of Old Master paintings is fraught with tricky questions of condition and provenance, restoration, overpainting – and at times of outright fakery.
I’m an investigative art consultant experienced in evaluating pictures using X-ray, infrared imaging and other scientific techniques, and after a painstaking investigation of evidence, including the gallery’s own technical reports, I’ve reached my own conclusions about the ‘Van Dyck’ saved for the nation at such great cost.
And I think the generous members of the public who donated should be asking for their money back.
Antoon van Dyck, as he was christened, was Flemish, the son of an Antwerp silk merchant who rose to be court painter to Charles I and a towering figure in the history of British art.
A flamboyant character, Van Dyck revolutionised portraiture in this country, imbuing his aristocratic sitters with an air of theatrical confidence and authority.
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Sandy Nairne during the Portrait Gala 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery on February 11, 2014 in London, England
Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that the ‘selfie’ in question was acquired by the nation in rather dramatic circumstances.
Philip Mould, the dealer who brokered the sale at such a handsome price, is one of Britain’s most recognisable art experts. He makes regular appearances on Antiques Roadshow and is known as something of an authority on Van Dyck.
But this story also involves the unlikely figure of Petra Ecclestone’s ex-husband James Stunt, who once described himself as a billionaire art collector, but is today known as a shambolic, foul-mouthed bankrupt.
The Mail on Sunday has previously revealed that Stunt lent a number of fake paintings to Prince Charles’s charity at Dumfries House in Scotland where, embarrassingly, they were put on public display.
And that attempts had then been made by intermediaries to use the fakes as collateral formillions of pounds worth of loans.
The paintings have now been taken down from public view, although Stunt still maintains they are originals.
But the businessman’s reputation was intact back in 2013 when, while still married to Formula 1 heiress Petra, he was looking to add to a vast and rapidly expanding collection of masterpieces and agreed to buy the Van Dyck from Mould’s client, Canadian industrialist Alfred Bader.
But when it was reported that Stunt might fly the painting out of Britain and hang it on the walls of his home in Los Angeles, the National Portrait Gallery stepped in, even though he denied it.
Stunt subsequently withdrew from the purchase and The Duchess of Cambridge worked her magic, helping raise the asking price of £10million to save it for the nation.
Pictured: Petra Ecclestone’s ex James Stunt who tried to buy the painting but wanted to take it abroad
In May 2014, following one of the most successful appeals ever, the National Portrait Gallery announced that the deal was done, thanks to £1.5million from small private donors and £1.2million from two family trusts.
Another £1.35million was paid jointly by the Art Fund charity and the NPG itself, while the biggest sum of all – £6.34million – came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, public money intended for good causes.
According to Mould, sending the Van Dyck self-portrait overseas would have been like ‘losing a chunk of Stonehenge’.
It was the following year, 2015, when I first had the chance to look at the picture properly. I was bothered by it. The eyes didn’t look like those of an Old Master painting and the clothing was sloppily done.
The NPG itself admits the way the paint is applied or ‘handled’ might indicate the picture is ‘unfinished’ or ‘experimental’.
I should say that this is an old and interesting portrait, a far cry from the easily detected pastiches of Monet and Picasso that Stunt had lent to Dumfries House.
All the same, I was bothered by the vast sum of money paid by the British public and decided to investigate in the most thorough way I could, using the sorts of techniques familiar to fans of Mould’s Fake Or Fortune?
The first step was to look at the literature. What had been written about this painting before? What do the acknowledged specialists say?
Oddly, there was little information about a painting of such apparent significance. It was described as a copy by Van Dyck experts Gustav Gluck in 1941 and Eric Larsen in 1988.
And in 1982 British art historian and former surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures, Sir Oliver Millar, had upgraded his attribution of the picture from being a work that had long been considered a low-level copy to being something he termed a ‘best surviving version’, a verdict he repeated in 2004.
But what did Millar mean? Simply that the work seemed better than any other copy in circulation – and that was all. Mould, however, had a lot more faith than that. In 2009, he successfully bid £8.3million, triple the estimate, at a Sotheby’s auction on behalf of his client.
He bought the Van Dyck not as a mere copy but as an original, clearly believing that the picture was a good investment.
It remained in Mould’s gallery for the next five years. It was a calculated gamble, but then Mould has a good track record, particularly when it comes to the Flemish master.
Dr Bendor Grosvenor, Philip Mould, and Fiona Bruce on an episode of Fake or Fortune
He has found no fewer than three ‘lost’ Van Dycks, including one that had been brought in to the Antiques Roadshow.
If the academic verdict was uncertain, were there any other mentions of the painting that could help? It turned out that the late Brian Sewell, the waspish art critic of the London Evening Standard, shared my doubts.
In Sewell’s opinion, the Van Dyck ‘selfie’ didn’t gel as an original Old Master should. Detecting ‘a dissonance between the face and the costume’, he felt the piece had been painted by at least two different hands and, in January 2014, he questioned why anyone was attempting to ‘save’ it for the nation.
Sewell demanded the NPG provide the donors with scientific evidence before asking them to fork out £10million.
No such ‘diagnostic’ analysis was forthcoming. Yet evidence did exist and had been seen by the NPG in the form of X-ray and infrared images of the self-portrait, which show what lies below the surface of the paint.
I, too have seen the images because, following the sale of the painting to the nation, they were quietly made available online. But in my view, these results are far from encouraging. Take, for example, the tell-tale marks known as ‘pentiments’.
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge looks at the piece of work entitled “Self Portrait ” by Anthony van Dyck at the Turner Contemporary gallery on March 11, 2015 in Margate, England
Sometimes these marks – created as the painter works – can be seen as a sign of authenticity, showing that the artist changed his mind as he went along, rather than copying someone else.
But the pentiments beneath the surface of this picture seem so uncertain to me they could even be taken to reveal a completely different portrait underneath.
There is little to suggest the sort of creative process that would eventually produce the striking image visible on the surface of the painting. There is more scientific evidence to be considered, also: the results of ultraviolet imaging and pigment analysis ordered by the NPG in April 2015 but which it has refused to disclose in public.
I had to lodge a Freedom of Information request before I was given access. And when, finally, I was allowed to see the analysis – under supervision – I was shocked to find that it showed what I believe to be extensive overpainting.
From what I could see, there is swaths of it, covering the entire piece with imaginative faux brushstrokes.
Repainted, that is, not merely retouched. What does this mean? I believe the portrait cannot be considered as a genuine antique and that it is a ‘fudge’ of old and new, just as Sewell had suggested.
To my mind, the pigment analysis is equally damning as it reveals the use of at least one modern colouring, phthalocyanine blue, which was not known before the 20th Century. This blue pigment sits on top of a varnish which is suspiciously smooth and which covers even older re-touchings underneath.
To me, these diagnostics confirm the painting is not just the copy it was long thought to be but that, worse, it has been restored at some point in its history and in a way that was not true to the original I believe the work now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery is likely to have been painted no earlier than the 18th Century – and is at least 100 years younger than it claims to be.
As far as I can see, almost nothing is left on the surface that can even be considered antique, never mind ‘Van Dyck’.
And there is more. IN 2015, the National Portrait Gallery made a video about its new acquisition, in the course of which it touched on a strange phenomenon – the extensive ‘mottling’, or surface blistering, visible in both the infrared and the X-ray analyses of the portrait.
How so? The NPG claimed in the video that it was seeking answers to this conundrum. Five years later, we are still waiting for an explanation.
Yet behind closed doors, the NPG does have some idea of what has caused the mottling, as it made clear in an in-house report that has never been released to the public.
In its discussions with me, the gallery said that the blistering appears to be the result of exposure to an unknown heat source – quite intense heat, in my view.
Such as might have been generated by a large fire, perhaps? And could this be explained by something in the chain of ownership of the picture before it reached Mould?
I discovered that it had been consigned for sale at Sotheby’s by George Child Villiers, 10th Earl of Jersey, having been in his family for some time. It probably hung at Osterley Park in West London, which his father bequeathed to the National Trust in 1947 at a time when these vast family seats were hopelessly uneconomic.
The 9th Earl then moved to Radier Manor on Jersey, putting a large quantity of art and furniture into storage. But in September 1949, a fire broke out at the warehouse destroying a number of artworks, including two important equestrian portraits, one by Van Dyck and one by Rubens. Had this supposed Van Dyck self-portrait, long-considered a copy, been rescued, badly damaged, from the flames?
It certainly fits. From studying the scientific analyses and reading the conservation reports – which are only made available under the NPG’s strict control – it now seems to me that the copy today hanging as a Van Dyck ‘original’ in the National Portrait Gallery was extensively repainted just after 1949. The work then went on display in 1952, in Jersey, although no one who reviewed that exhibition even saw fit to mention it.
As for the 10th Lord Jersey, he said last night that the painting had been in his family since the early 1700s. He did not think the self-portrait had been in the warehouse blaze and had no knowledge of it being retouched or restored. ‘There was never any question but that it was a van Dyck,’ he said.
When it appeared for sale at Sotheby’s in 2009 to be bought by Mould and his client, the auction house’s condition report admitted the piece had been relined – reinforced by having a new canvas attached to the back – and restored in the mid-20th Century. The timing is not, in my view, a coincidence.
The art market is complicated, of course. Not only do opinions matter very much, they also vary, sometimes wildly. Mould, for example, believes that the piece is a wonderful example of Van Dyck’s work in strikingly good condition. That was his view when he bought it and he believes it now. There are influential voices supporting his assessment.
When Sotheby’s sold the painting, it described it as ‘One of the most important Flemish baroque self portraits and perhaps the finest still remaining in private hands’. And there while there is little academic literature to support the attribution, Sotheby’s points out that the self-portrait had been thought good enough to appear in two important Van Dyck exhibitions – at the National Portrait Gallery in 1982 and the Tate in 2009.
Then there is the NPG itself, which says that ‘the Van Dyck selfportrait is considered to be one of the finest examples of the artist’s portraiture and its authenticity has never been questioned’. On that second point, I would beg to differ. The painting has been described as a copy and was very publicly doubted by Sewell who was also an accomplished analyst.
The gallery says it refutes my conclusions, which ‘are inaccurate and contradict our own in-depth research and analysis’. The NPG says there is ‘comparatively little overpainting for a work of this age’.
Yet what I would ask, is ‘comparative’? It’s my view that while retouching is understandable, any overpainting at all is questionable in a work of such supposed importance, and my reading of the slides suggests the overpainting is considerable.
On the issue of the modern pigment on the painting, the gallery states that it ‘is limited to a few small areas and can be identified as part of modern conservation work’.
It is worth adding, however, the documents make clear that the only samples taken were from a small area near the edge and it seems to me impossible to judge how widely it was used across the surface.
And then the gallery says ‘there is no evidence that the picture has been damaged in a fire’. When it comes to conclusive proof, perhaps the NPG is correct. But what, then, of the mottling – likely to be the result of blistering and a subsequent repair – that the NPG identified in its own video?
Has the gallery considered the fire of 1949?
Staring out from its extraordinary frame, the Van Dyck ‘selfie’ has no shortage of backers. It remains not merely popular, but in the words of the gallery, a work of ‘huge international cultural significance and national importance’.
Yet I have a very different verdict, all the same: From looking at the scientific reports, I would say that very little of the surface of the painting is older than the 20th Century and that it is difficult to authenticate what lies underneath – though I think it is 18th Century at the oldest.
If in 2009 Sotheby’s had offered it as the ruined and re-restored copy I believe it truly is, I estimate it would have fetched no more than £5,000. And I believe the 10,000 generous souls who made small donations in the belief they were saving a masterpiece for the nation have been sold not merely a dud, but one tainted by deliberate overpainting.
It goes without saying that the market in Old Masters is fraught with difficulty. It is no place for the inexperienced, let alone the unwary. But to me, one thing is certain: that when it comes to our £10million ‘masterpiece for everyone’, the National Portrait Gallery still has serious questions to answer.
Dr Susan Grundy is an independent investigative art historian focusing on Old Masters and art authentication.