Every week, five million people in the United Kingdom alone tune in to the BBC’s Fake or Fortune?, a television show about the provenance and attribution of notable works of art. That may well say something about the British character, but it says even more about its host and co-creator, art dealer Philip Mould. Involved with antiques from a very early age, he displays in Fake or Fortune? and his other media projects a keen sense of not just how a piece of art appeals to us, but what hidden potential it carries within. Take, for instance, the grimy 17th-century portrait you can see partially restored in the clip above, which he posted on Twitter this week.
At first glance, the painting might not look that much worse for wear than anything else from the Jacobean era, but even the first few minutes of work reveal the true brilliance of the colors hidden underneath what turn out to be layers of brown and yellow. They’ve actually built up in the name of preservation: over about 200 years, a few (or more than a few) coats of varnish had been applied to the canvas in order to protect it, but that varnish turns color over time. Luckily, with the right tools and the right technique, it comes off.
“The painting was originally in a private collection in England,” Mould told the Telegraph. “A mixture of gel and solvent was created, specifically just to remove the varnish and not to damage the underlying paint.” Certainly the portrait’s subject would approve of her appearance’s return to its former splendor, though little information remains as to the identity of the lady herself: “We don’t know the identity yet but certain iconographic clues are starting to emerge,” said Mould. “All we know is she is 36 and it was painted in 1617.”
And so we happen upon another of the compelling aspects of art history: its potential to turn into a detective story. But if you’d like to accompany the narrative experience with a little more technical knowledge, have a look at the short video above showing what it takes to revive a 400-year-old masterwork. People once commissioned portraits so that posterity could know their likenesses, but one wonders if they understood just how far into posterity their likenesses would make it — some of them, thanks to art restorers, looking fresher than they have for centuries.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.