Someone once observed that any single piece of art is always changing, depending on who is looking at it – the viewer is as much a part of the equation as the artist.
Usually, this affects only the enjoyment or otherwise of a piece of art; but sometimes it can have huge financial implications. In 2006, when Lyn Fuss saw a painting called Glass Jug with Plates and Pears by the celebrated British artist William Nicholson, she loved it so much that she bought it for £165,000.
But five years later the composition was omitted from the catalogue raisonné (a scholarly listing) of Nicholson’s oil paintings, at a stroke slashing the value of Fuss’s beloved still life to just a few hundred pounds.
Where Fuss saw authenticity, Patricia Reed – author of the catalogue – saw the opposite. Reed raised stylistic concerns about the composition of the jug, and thought the plates “boringly painted”; she also questioned “close and disquieting similarities” to Nicholson’s later work Glass and Fruit in the National Gallery of Canada.
And that was that, until the BBC’s art series Fake or Fortune? attempted to uncover enough new evidence to convince sceptics that the disputed painting was indeed a genuine Nicholson.
This CSI-meets-Antiques Roadshow process is not instantaneous, which is one reason why the programme carries weight in the art world. Among those whose specialist knowledge was sought was Professor Aviva Burnstock of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, one of perhaps 200 experts worldwide in the forensic investigation of artists’ materials and techniques.
Where others may have an emotional response to a piece of art, Professor Burnstock sees something deeper. Her skills oblige an artwork to reveal its secrets to her.
“It’s massively thrilling to me to look at paintings very closely with my own eyes, more closely than anybody would if they just visited a gallery,” says Burnstock, 59.
“My job isn’t to authenticate paintings, but to analyse them technically. I feel privileged to have that access. I like the cold science of it, and I also love thinking about how the artist made the painting.
“But I’m not emotionally invested in a positive outcome. It’s not important to me if the painting is attributed [authenticated] at the end. I have to look at the evidence and weigh it objectively.”
In this case, evidence was not in short supply. The skill, of course, was understanding what it revealed. William Nicholson was one of the leading British artists of his generation. Born in 1872, over the five decades he was active he created nearly 900 oil paintings, among which his exquisite still lifes now often reach six-figure sums.
In the 1930s, he also taught Winston Churchill to paint, describing the statesman as “his most ardent pupil”.
It was also during this period, around 1936, that Nicholson was said to have produced Glass Jug with Plates and Pears. Removed from its mount by Professor Burnstock, with Fake or Fortune? presenter Philip Mould looking on, the back of the painting gives up a host of possible evidence. But are they clues or red herrings?
Two pieces of handwriting prove particularly intriguing as Burnstock uses ultraviolet techniques and infrared imaging to enhance them for examination by other experts. The first comprises the words “Glass Jug”; and the second was initially more baffling – a scrawl of abbreviated words with numbers that were later revealed to be train arrival and departure times.
Meticulous research proves the timetable in question was only in use when Nicholson was painting. Could this be crucial? Burnstock was also able to examine the artist’s original paintbox, still kept by his grandson, containing tubes of paint used by Nicholson.
Burnstock scrutinises the microscopic structure of the paint, and then compares it to tiny samples – smaller than a pinhead – taken from the authenticated Nicholson painting in Canada.
But when she X-rayed Glass Jug with Plates and Pears she discovered there was more to the painting than met the eye. “I was completely surprised by what I found,” she says, laughing at the memory.
“Often there will be a surface clue, but in this case I didn’t know what was coming until there it was. I was very excited.”
What exactly she discovered, and whether the findings are enough for the painting to be declared authentic, is revealed at the end of the programme. But there is one element of authenticity Burnstock does not hesitate to confirm.
“Fake or Fortune? is a real-time exploration of attribution, meaning we worked on the Nicholson painting for several months. It’s not a construct for the purposes of TV. It’s conducted exactly in the sequence you see on screen. It’s a real enquiry.”
With a very real outcome for Lyn Fuss’s £165,000 investment…
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