I Am Searching for this portrait,…

Hello,.my name is Duncan Hulme. I am a 4th generation Fine Art Picture Restorer, originally from London, now living in Sydney.

This is a portrait of the Infanta Maria Clara Eugenia, wife of Archduke Albert IIV. It was restored by my grandfather Norman Hulme, in 1941. It is attributed to Sir Peter Paul Rubens. It was documented in the Burlington Magazine. c 1950’s 

 

I have recently been contacted by a researcher who believes it is the ‘pendant’ or partner to a recently discovered portrait of Archduke Albert IIV, seen on the left here, which has also been attributed to Sir Peter Paul Rubens.

As you can see, there is enough evidence to suggest a link between these two portraits. However, one of course needs both works to establish a credible bridge between the two. Does anyone know where this lady portrait may be? It may well have been restored since 1941?  Please send this search on to any of your associates in the field of restoration and conservation. Any suggestions are greatly welcomed,.

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,..

The Icon Test

The Icon Test

A recent restoration of a badly broken late 19th century Russian Icon on a thick fruitwood panel.

Despite being a relatively young 130 or so years old, this painting was wrestling with its own future, given the severity of the break across the panel, which had been previously ‘repaired’ some 40 years ago. Fair enough to the previous restorer, it was never going to be an easy job,…but if ‘restoration’ has any value for the painting,..it is to,..not to be seen,..

A glance across the fine glassine surface shows how badly the two parts of the panel were joined.

And then filled with thick brushed on paint to match,..

Inevitably it was necessary to clean and remove all traces of this before I could attempt any kind of restoration process.

These test clean area’s show something of the original colours used by the artist.

They are underneath successive layers of grease, wax, shellac, varnish and more grease and animal glue.

Cleaning did take a while to say the least.

During the cleaning process,.it became also apparent that the previous method of ‘fixing’ the break, was to pour liquid animal glue into the crevasse to mend the join and hope to retain the original shards of paint.

An interesting concept, but one destined to fail as you can see,..all the loose shards of paint and chalk ground have floated about during the drying process, virtually destroying any chance of retrieving anything original from the join area as the glue dries hard and the paint and chalk ground are brittle. Trying to remove even single a shard was hours and hours of arguably pointless activity as the shards simply crumble before you can detach them.

Here is the painting, fully cleaned.And so it became apparent that I would have to re-break the panel, loose the shards, re-set the panel, re-fill the gap, and then restore it to match.

A week later, and here is the newly joined panel with the first steps of surface filling.

Now comes the raw skill factor,..can I match everything that is missing along the break area,..?

In restoration terms, although the damage here is but a tiny % of the whole, it is critical to get it right as it has to be perfect in every direction, from every glance or it will show,..and there is a lot of fine detail, gold paint, glazes and information all to be pieced together, and in the right order, before the two half’s of the image can feel ‘as one’ again,..

Every piece of missing information along the join has to be rebuilt from the artists original methodology upwards , thus incurring several layers of activity for each increment of missing paint.

And here is the result, after restoration.

In these details you will have to work hard to see a trace of the original damage


You may notice that I have also joined up the original cracks in the paint to maintain the sense of age, of the work.

Approximately 90 hours, over nearly 5 weeks.

How did we get to,..here?

Modern art,…Is it all Bollocks?

well obviously not,..but a lot of it is,

billionaires can buy anything, for any price,.. it doesn’t matter anymore if a jasper johns goes for half a billion,…

or even somehow,..a jeff koons,.. ?? and it surely will one day,.

but sadly that still won’t feed any hungry families, alas,…and thats also an awful lot of anyone else’s art too,..

avarice is a terrible thing for humanity, but it sells a lot of modern art,..and its the current trend to spend up big,..

And how has modern art,..in just a few decades, massively outstripped the value given to the great old masters?

How is a Cy Twombly blackboard with 6 lines of circular scribble worth $70m,..? Its more than a Rubens or a Rembrandt, or a Monet..in which there is more skill factor in 3 sq inches of painting? I could make you one of these for a couple of hundred dollars, which would still be robbing you….or you could make your own,..?

also,..sometimes its very difficult to tell the difference between

the great god of,… “Consistency’

and the lesser god of,… ‘Repetition’

It would be very difficult to explain to a child in some impoverished country that these lines of scribble could transform their families life forever, by its value,…How silly would you feel,..trying to,..?

Anything is worth,..what someone is prepared to pay for it,..perhaps there lies the corkscrew of truth,…? But how did we manage to sidestep such skilled craftsmanship, and instead, celebrate and elevate,..the trinkets,..? If you have $70m,..why do you want to spend it on trinkets,..?