Sold for just £2,500, is this lost Gainsborough actually worth £1m? | Painting
To the excitement of art and musicologists, a completely unknown portrait of Thomas Gainsborough, believed to depict an unjustly forgotten musician well known in 18th century Britain, was discovered.
A painting of a man with a scroll of manuscript music was not referred to as a “British School” until it surfaced in France in December and sold for around £ 2,500 in a Paris auction.
Hugh Belsey, a world authority in Gainsborough, told the observer that layers of accumulated dirt, discolored varnish, and mismatched overcolours had hidden the master’s hand and that the preservation of the picture had now revealed the sensitivity of Gainsborough’s brushstrokes and the brilliance of his drawing skills.
“This is a really exciting addition to his job,” he said. “It is so rare to find a picture that is completely unknown.”
The £ 2,500 retail price pales against the true value of the painting. Comparable portraits of this size have exceeded £ 1m, with the much larger portrait of Miss Read, later Mrs William Villebois, selling for £ 6.5m in 2011.
Belsey is the former director of Gainsborough’s House, the museum and art gallery at the artist’s birthplace in Sudbury, Suffolk, where he helped build one of the world’s largest collections of the artist’s work. His catalog raisonné of Portraits of the Artist, a definitive study, was published by Yale University Press in 2019.
He dated the rediscovered portrait, an oil on canvas measuring 76.2 cm x 63.5 cm, to around 1768, pointing to strong evidence that it was the Bohemian composer and violinist Antonín Kammel, who from 1765 to his Death in 1784 aged 1784 in Great Britain only worked 54.
Self-portrait by Thomas Gainsborough, 1787. Photographer: ullstein bild Dtl./Getty Images
Gainsborough was a music lover who played the viola da gamba, the forerunner of the cello, and probably attended concerts that Kammel gave in 1768 and 1769 in Bath, his home at the time. He and Kammel moved in the same social circle with a mutual friend in George Pitt, one of Gainsborough’s respected sitters.
Belsey said, “Gainsborough took a keen interest in musicians and compared a picture to a piece of music after he once wrote: ‘Part of a picture should be like the first part of a melody; that you can guess what’s next, and that’s what makes up the second part of the melody, and that’s how I did it. ‘“
He noted that the sitter is shown in the new portrait in a thoughtful pose, as if he were “looking for inspiration”, just as Gainsborough had done with other portraits of musicians and religious figures.
Andrew Baker, a composer who has researched Kammel for years, said, “The important feature of the portrait is that it shows Kammel as a composer holding music rather than his violin. This is the composer as he would like us to see him. It’s a romantic picture. “
From 1765 Kammel became part of the music circle of Johann Christian Bach, son of Johann Sebastian Bach and leading musician in London after Handel’s death in 1759.
Noting that Kammel performed regularly in London and the provinces with Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel, a close friend of Gainsborough’s, Baker said, “Although JC Bach’s music is seldom heard, he is known from Gainsborough’s portrait, as is Abel and the oboist and composer Johann Fischer, later Gainsborough’s son-in-law, who also performed regularly with Kammel. Given the musical circle he moved into, with his Gainsborough connections, it is surprising that no portrait of Kammel has been identified. “
He added, “He is a composer who was well known in his day, but he is largely forgotten today because there is no picture while all of his friends are known from Gainsborough pictures. This portrait is really exciting. Coincidentally, a CD with Kammel’s chamber pieces will be released later that year. It begins to take an interest in him. “
Simon Gillespie, a painting conservator, removed layers of dirt and discolored varnish from the picture. He said, “Much of the artist’s original coat of paint was covered by later overpainting, which typically went over the drying cracks of the original paint. A previous amateur restorer had thoroughly cleaned the portrait and left abrasions, which he then disguised by adding paint and glaze. “
He added, “The artist’s original colors are now being revealed, and the portrait has regained the three-dimensionality and sense of spontaneity intended by the artist.”