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25.04.2019

Spotlight: Rediscovering Botticelli

Despite the modest recognition he received in life, Botticelli turned out to be one of the 19th century’s most esteemed artists. As such it’s no surprise that his paintings were replicated as they grew in posthumous popularity, all the way from the late eighteen-hundreds to barely a few months ago. Perhaps that’s why, when a copy turned out to be much closer to the original than ever anticipated, the media whirlwind that followed was not wholly unexpected.

“Exhausting but exciting” is how English Heritage Conservator and Icon member Rachel Turnbull ACR describes the media storm she was swept into in the wake of the discovery. The lead, which originated from English Heritage itself, was picked up by countless news outlets from the world over, captivating imaginations with the story of a mystery unravelled.

“In the English Heritage conservation team we carry out a condition audit of all paintings in the care of the charity on a 5 yearly rolling basis and we knew from this that the painting had some unstable flaking paint and that the historic varnish was very heavily discoloured making it rather difficult to appreciate.” she explains.

before_-_botticelli_during_conservation_treatment.jpgBefore conservation ©English Heritage

It was that old, yellowing varnish that had made experts disavow the painting as anything more than a copy, despite its purchase as an actual Botticelli in 1897. The question as to why the piece had been included amongst other pieces in the artist’s body of work was a poignant one Rachel and her team sought to answer.

Thorough tests involving x-ray testing, infrared studies and pigment analysis, the removal of the varnish and finally extensive consultations with colleagues at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery London, it was determined that the painting had in fact come from Botticelli’s own workshop.

The attention was practically warranted and yet it still took Rachel by surprise: “Botticelli is known the world over as one of the most celebrated painters of the Renaissance and to conserve a painting from his workshop was incredibly rewarding. With a conservation story like this, I think the public enjoy the idea of us putting together the pieces of the puzzle to work out the truth.”

The truth is not without its nuance - the painting is from Botticelli’s workshop, meaning it could either be his work, his assistants’ or a joint collaboration - yet the public’s imagination got swept in the flight of sensational headlines. From “fake to authentic” or “dismissed as copy to rare original”, over 100 media outlets touted the finding best described by English Heritage as "the closest version of the masterpiece" to the real thing.

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And yet, perhaps the most remarkable and celebrated part of the whole ordeal was to see a conservator prominently featured in the limelight - a position typically reserved in interviews for curators and museum directors. Rachel’s voice and her expertise as a senior collections conservator were heavily quoted and referenced in each and every article and though she admits to have done “bits and pieces of press over the years”, she also adds that she’s never been involved in something quite this monumental.

It’s a great step for the conservation profession, which is more often than not misrepresented as a pair of gloved hands frantically rubbing a cotton swab and “magically” cleaning an old painting. More and more, conservators are hailed as dedicated specialists, with years of training and extensive knowledge on key subject matters.

But of course the stereotypes are not without their humour, as Rachel points out when considering her favourite radio moment: “It was live on radio, when Mr Bean ‘cleaning’ a painting was brought up in conversation… what can you say in response to that, other than I hope we are rather more careful and professional in real life!”

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Madonna of the Pomegranate will be on display at Ranger’s House in Greenwich from 1 April. You can find out more on the English Heritage website.

All images: ©English Heritage

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