Lunch with Rembrandt

Hulme Fine Art Restorers, Chelsea, London.

The fine art photographers were still trying to adjust the lights onto a large 17 th century Spanish still life,…an oil on canvas with rich dark passages and a difficult crinkly surface,..when the phone rang,..

It was a Friday morning in 1977, normally a time when finished paintings were finally varnished and wrapped ready for delivery to the West End,.

I was 17 and as the apprentice, it was part of my job to also answer the phone. The call was from a well known client, from a family of art dealers. He was was quite excited and wanted to speak to my father to make an immediate appointment. He had a new painting that he wanted examined, and cleaned,..

20 minutes later,..he arrived carrying a plastic shopping bag, inside of which was a small panel painting.

The moment it was handed to my father Derek, there was a palpable sense of excitement. Palpable in the sheer ‘feel’ of the work in his hands,..

A 17th century oak panel approx 40 x 30 cm, upon which, was a portrait of a young man with a dark wide brimmed hat, white collar and dark tunic, head and chest only, looking slightly down and to the left of the viewer.

Everything about the face screamed, Rembrandt..! The panel was of the period, the style and delivery of the paint strokes in the face were more than plausible, but strangely, the background to the sitter was,.. grey! This is not a colour Rembrandt ever used for his backgrounds, and inscribed into this unlikely colour was a very dubious looking signature which read ‘Rembrandt f 1634’ just to the right of the figure.

As restorers, you become used to the reality that many signatures are often not genuine,..particularly for famous artists, and so there was much debate as to the originality of the whole work ? Certainly it was of the period,.and the face was of the quality, but not obviously of the authorship of the master,..

Perhaps a pupil,..or follower,..?

In my grandfathers day, Norman Hulme had reputedly worked on some 30 paintings during the 30’s 40’ and 50’s that were by, or attributed to Rembrandt. But this was a different era and most works were now better scrutinised as to authorship,..particularly with the connoisseurship of London’s reputable West End fine art dealers.

And so, the small panel was put onto the easel and prepared for a test clean,..

Without hesitation, both my father and uncle Roger were adamant that the background and signature were false and that both the hat and the white collar looked suspiciously inappropriate to the consistency of the paint in the portrait.

The client asked the fine art photographers to stay and document the cleaning, stage by stage. The first of which was to apply a swab of cotton wool with a mild solvent to the top right corner.

Immediately,.. the grey paint began to dissolve, revealing underneath, a warm brushy umber tone beloved by the master,..Our hearts pumped a little faster,.

Clearly, the background had been overpainted, perhaps some 50 – 70 years previously…

The painting had just been acquired by the client from one of the smaller auction houses in London as ‘attributed to’ or ‘in the school of’ Rembrandt, which is a popular means of saying, ‘not thought to be the work of the master’. It had come from the stock room of one of the museums in middle America,.where at the time some 500 works were documented as by Rembrandt. This alone suggested that it had a questionable authenticity, as there were more ‘Rembrandts’ in America, than in the rest of Europe. The client had acquired it at a very low hammer price.

As the cleaning moved on from right to left..the slowly disappearing grey overpaint gave way to the evolving original umber tone, and the background etched its way towards the large dark brimmed hat of the sitter. As the solvent edged across the line of the hat, it too started to dissolve. The hat was also an addition to the original composition,.!

By now it was nearly lunchtime and as the adrenaline was rising further, deliveries were postponed until the afternoon and the photographers clicked away.

The final remnants of the false hat were removed and the composition began to reveal curly hair on the head of a young man, against the umber background. This was looking more authentic,.. As the cleaning proceeded, the originality of the white collar became more and more questionable. Even in my brief time as an apprentice I had seen a number of works which had been overpainted, often to make them look more ‘authentic’ or to cover considerable damages. This one had been dolled up to make it look more ‘Dutch’. Hence the addition of the Dutch hat, and subsequently the white Protestant style collar. In this attempt to make it look more ‘Dutch’ the person responsible had also changed the status and origin of the sitter,.

Next to go, was the white collar,..

Two hours into the cleaning and we were looking at a portrait of a young and probably Jewish man, with curly hair, wearing a simple collarless tunic in slight repose. The condition of the work was very good. There were no major damages or thinness. What we saw was rich and painterly, glowing with chariscuro that still had the patina of the original 300 year old glazes that had aged to warm browny yellow,.and largely without loss.

Soon, everything that was false,..had been cleaned away,..except the signature.

This had been left until last. The assessment by now was that it could easily be by the master. It had all the hall marks of his hand, including some direct tooling marks into the wet paint with the handle end of the brush to describe the curls of hair. This action was fairly unique to rembrandt at the time and mirrored Rembrandt’s famous self portrait in Kenwood House,.. where the final expression was played out by scraping out the paint above the eyebrow with the back of the brush, to emphasise the sitters mood. These are the marks of the painters painter,..

Sometimes clients elect not to clean signatures, particularly if they are vulnerable or if the client believes the work to have a better chance of re sale with some kind of authorship as opposed to none. But we had come this far and what was passing for a signature, was set into the false grey background so It had to be wrong,…! The client was determined to find the truth of this painting.

Slowly, from the very edge of the last numbers 1634, My father applied the solvent to the signature,..in a heart stopping moment, it began to dissolve.

Underneath however,.were the same numbers and the same signature, Rembrandt f 1634,..written into the original umber background,..!

It was a fully signed and dated, original,.!

Its not often that you get a chance to be this close to Rembrandt,..it was golden moment,.

Deliveries to the west end were cancelled and I was sent to get food for lunch and a couple of bottles of red,.

In the studio, the painting was left on the easel with a gentle warm light placed to illuminate the serenity of the image and as the grey afternoon became liquid, we all sat down and had lunch,..with the master,..

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