As a leading art historian, Christopher Wright discovered several Old Master paintings in public and private collections over five decades. Now he has discovered that a copy of a painting by Sir Anthony van Dyck, which he bought for Â£ 65 in 1970, may in fact be an original by the 17th century Flemish court painter of King Charles 1st.
âI bought it from a jobbing dealer in West London,â he said. âI bought it as a copy, as an art historian. I didn’t pay attention, in a strange way. The syndrome is that the shoemaker’s children have the worst shoes. The collection of the art historian is therefore the least viewed. Wright estimated the painting could be worth around Â£ 40,000, although some Van Dycks have clawed back seven-figure sums.
The painting, a portrait of Isabella Clara Eugenia, Infanta of Spain and Regent of the Spanish Netherlands, has hung in her living room for years. Now, having realized his significance, he wants him to go to a public institution. He is on permanent loan to the Cannon Hall Museum, Barnsley, which has a collection of fine 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings.
Wright’s previous discoveries include a portrait of Stubbs at the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, and his publications include studies of 17th-century artists such as Rembrandt.
He only took a closer look at the portrait of the Infanta after catching the attention of a visitor to his home, Colin Harrison, senior curator of European art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. âHe’s coming to see me. We are chatting. He says, âI really think your photo is from Van Dyck,â Wright said.
âWhen you own something, you don’t pay attention to it. It was the guardian’s hands that triggered it. That’s what Colin noticed.
Harrison recalls: âIn the normal way of a museum curator, I immediately looked around the walls. It seemed to me that it was an interesting picture and maybe a good one [and] that, if you have the right hands, Van Dyck may very well have painted them.
In purchasing it, Wright had assumed that it was one of many copies of Van Dyck’s Infanta Portraits in various formats, including full, three-quarter and half-length versions. His is mid-length, an oil on canvas measuring 81.5cm by 70.5cm.
In each, she appears in the habit of a nun, signaling her mourning and her piety after the death of her husband, Archduke Albert VII of Austria, in 1621. She became regent of the Netherlands and reigned in her own right. on her own until her death in 1633, abandoning the jewels and lavish clothes in which she had been painted in her youth.
Wright admitted that she had been a pious woman, a good administrator and a patron of the arts, but he never particularly liked the portrait. âMy nickname was ‘Er Indoors’ after Rumpole of the Bailey. He’s kind of a doomed personality.
But, inspired by Harrison, he took it to the Courtauld Institute of Art in central London, where it was examined and restored.
âIt was dirty and had yellow varnish, but it was in decent condition,â he said. “The whole thing is absolutely beautiful now.”
It is believed to date between 1628 and 1632. Van Dyck had then worked in England for King James I and as a court painter to the Infanta, and in 1632 he returned to England, where Charles I appointed him “principalle Paynter”. And knighted him.
The Courtauld Report, by Kendall Francis and Timothy McCall, notes that Van Dyck and his workshop produced many portraits of infants and that it can be “very difficult” to determine to what extent the assistants were involved. They conclude: âSkillful skill leads us to tentatively propose that [it] can be attributed to Van Dyck’s workshop and that it was completed during his lifetime and under his supervision.
Wright noted that while some believe the half-length version in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, is by Van Dyck, “this is not an opinion shared by the Walker,” whose description online y referred to as coming from Van Dyck’s studio and “possibly” the artist.
Discussing the qualities of his version, he said: âThe hands are beautiful. When it’s a performance in the studio, the hands can’t do it. The structure of the face is correct, her clothes are beautifully made. There is no busy copyist here.