BBC Four’s series Britain’s Lost Masterpieces has revealed a significant work of Flemish art in the city of Birmingham’s collection at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (BMAG), which has undergone the ‘most extraordinary’ transformation the show has seen and is now on display to the public.
Now in its fourth series, Britain’s Lost Masterpieces is presented by art historian Dr Bendor Grosvenor and historian Emma Dabiri. It investigates potential discoveries in UK public art collections. This episode, which aired on Wednesday 6 November, is the second episode in a three-part series.
Bendor Grosvenor spotted Birmingham’s landscape painting on the Art UK website. He suspected it was by the Flemish painter Jan Breughel the Elder (1568-1625), one of the most important artists working in northern Europe in the late 16th century.
The painting is stored at BMAG and although the wooden panel had split and the landscape had been heavily overpainted at some point in the past, Dr Grosvenor recognised the high quality of the picture beneath. Through a process of research, scientific analysis, and cleaning and restoration by Simon Gillespie Studio, the astonishing detail and subtlety of the painting was revealed.
It is now dated to 1605-10 and is thought to be by two artists: the landscape by Joos de Momper (1564-1635) and the figures by a painter in the workshop of Breughel the Elder if not by Breughel himself. Flemish artists often specialised in particular types of painting and collaborations of this kind were common. Breughel and de Momper are known to have worked together on nearly 60 paintings.
Bendor Grosvenor said: “Seeing a whole new landscape emerge from beneath the overpaint was the most extraordinary transformation we’ve had on Britain’s Lost Masterpieces. We were so lucky to work with Birmingham Museums for this series, and I hope people enjoy seeing the painting on display in the galleries.”
The picture was originally part of a set representing the four seasons. It shows the process of cider making in autumn: harvesting the apples, putting them through a cider press, and storing the cider in barrels.
Dr Ellen McAdam, Director of Birmingham Museums, said: “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces does a brilliant job of balancing connoisseurship, scientific research and the thrill of the chase. It was great to work with Bendor, Emma and the team to detect the real story of this painting. I am sure our audiences will be fascinated by its transformation. It will now take its rightful place in Birmingham’s internationally important collection of European art.”
The programme also investigated another painting in Birmingham’s collection, Wooded Landscape, Autumn Evening. This picture was bought in 1924 as a work by the 18th-century artist Thomas Gainsborough but was later downgraded to being an anonymous 19th-century copy instead. Following research and conservation for Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, it has now been attributed to a named artist: Thomas Barker of Bath (1769-1847). Barker admired Gainsborough and made many copies and versions of Gainsborough’s landscapes. These paintings are unsigned and have often been mistaken for Gainsborough’s own work
Both paintings are now on display at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.