Sunday, 19 August 2012


“Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight.” - Marcus Aurelius

How many art works of the past have been lost, destroyed or otherwise vanished without a trace! Many of them of course would have perished inadvertently in fires, floods or other natural disasters. Others may have been the victims of warfare or other civil disturbances. Some paintings would have been lost as they were over-painted, their panels or stretched canvas supports re-used by more recent artists. Some metal sculptures would have been broken down and melted so that their material could be re-used for more mundane requirements. Other art works still may languish forgotten in some dusty attic or locked up room, overlooked or simply forgotten about. A couple of years ago I blogged about the discovery, finally recovered in a Paris apartment…

It seems that history may repeat itself, with another long-lost work of an Old Master being rediscovered, in this case a painting by Leonardo da Vinci in a Scottish farmhouse. 59-year-old Fiona McLaren had kept an old painting in her home for a long time. It appears she didn’t think much of the painting. Recently facing financial difficulties, she decided to have the painting appraised and she was pleasantly surprised when some experts are speculating that it may in fact be a 500-year-old painting by Leonardo da Vinci and potentially worth more than $150 million.

If this painting is a genuine Leonardo, how did it manage to end up in a Scottish farmhouse? The provenance of the work is obscure, but in the twentieth-century it resurfaced when George McLaren, a physician working in London, received the work as a gift from a patient in the 1960s. The painting has remained in the family and resided on a landing and in a bedroom in George McLaren’s house. In 1979 George McLaren passed away and the painting then transferred to his wife who subsequently gave the work to her daughter Fiona McLaren on her fortieth birthday.

When art auctioneer Harry Robertson saw the painting he was staggered, speechless and finally gave a long sigh of exclamation! The painting is undergoing further analysis by experts at the Cambridge University and the Hamilton Kerr Institute, who will attempt to uncover its exact age and origins. Even if the painting is not a da Vinci original, it is believed to at least be from the da Vinci school, created by one of the Master’s pupils during the 16th century.

A papal bull was found attached to the back of the painting and is believed to have originated from the era of Pope Paul V, head of the Catholic Church in the early 17th century. The word “Magdalene” is visible on the faded paper. McLaren says that she will sell the painting to a museum, and she plans to donate to charity a percentage of the painting’s sale value after it is auctioned off.

The late George McLaren always referred to this painting as “Madonna and Child with John the Baptist”. Contemporary art experts say it is more likely to be a portrait of Mary Magdalene with her son. Shades of Dan Brown’s “The da Vinci Code”... The woman in the painting wears red, the colour declared by Papal decree for representing Mary Magdalene as opposed to the traditional blue used for the Virgin Mary.  The note from Pope Paul V (17 September 1552 – 28 January 1621) dates from the early 17th century, significantly later than Leonardo’s lifetime, and contains the word Magdalene, despite the majority of the text being illegible. Magdalene’s position in religious orthodoxy has been controversial and this may explain the disappearance of the work for centuries.

The composition of this small (58 x 71 cm) work resembles the Louvre’s “Madonna of the Rocks” though this sort of grouping was a common composition of figure during the Renaissance. Leonardesque details such as the v-shaped hairline, part and the child's elongated second toe point to the workshop of the Master. The background by the woman’s left shoulder is left unfinished, also characteristic of the multi-tasking Leonardo.
Alternatively of course, this could be a well-conceived fake!

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