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One hundred and fifty years ago, in a tall, thin house high on a hill, there lived an elderly gentleman. He sat in his drawing room admiring all the beautiful things he had collected over the years of his life. At the front of the room, close to the long windows overlooking the city of Bath, hung a tiny, circular picture of a Boy Blowing Bubbles by Teniers. 

Boy Blowing Bubbles

Boy Blowing Bubbles

c.1640, oil on panel by David Teniers II (1610–1690), shown before conservation, photo credit: The Holburne Museum

The two boys gazing at floating soap bubbles reminded him of his own childhood with his beloved older brother Frank, whose life had ended so suddenly many years ago, vanishing like a bursting bubble. Another tiny, round painting hung near the garden, a Man with Boy Gathering Apples – a curious little Flemish scene, by an artist whose name he did not know.

As he walked upstairs to his study, the connoisseur passed a pair of pictures that reminded him of his travels on the continent as a young man: A Pair of Pictures – Dutch Merry-making, Interior and Outdoor by no less an artist than 'Old Breughel'.

Visit to a Farmhouse

Visit to a Farmhouse

c.1620–1630, oil on panel by Pieter Brueghel the younger (1564/1565–1637/1638), shown before conservation, photo credit: The Holburne Museum

In my imagination, the bachelor collector Sir Thomas William Holburne (1793–1874) loved his treasures as a father loves his children. I also picture him sitting in his gas-lit drawing room by a blazing coal fire, puffing on a big Victorian cigar, and gradually coating every painting with a thick layer of soot and yellow grime. Over the past 40 years or so, conservators have been removing those layers gradually to rediscover the clarity and brightness hidden for so long, while curatorial research, modern technology and digital resources like Art UK build on the nineteenth-century collector’s often very hazy knowledge of subject matter and attribution. Those four little panels by members of the Bruegel family have recently been conserved and studied, and are now among the highlights of the most successful exhibition ever held at The Holburne Museum in Bath.

In surveys and displays of The Holburne’s paintings, the Flemish genre scenes were generally overlooked by eyes dazzled by Georgian elegance or the glowing skies of Dutch Italianate landscapes. Although the attribution of these four paintings to members of the Bruegel family was never seriously disputed, the two scenes of 'merrymaking’ and the two little roundels were in such poor condition that they spent much of their lives in storerooms.

The first to be rescued from the shelf was a tiny, round version of Pieter Bruegel the elder’s The Peasant and the Nest Robber, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The Holburne roundel was restored by John Mitchem in 2000, thanks to the generosity of a private donor, enabling its firm attribution as a reduced version by Pieter Brueghel the younger of his father’s original. Since then, it has become one of the stars of the collection.

Robbing the Bird's Nest

Robbing the Bird's Nest c.1620

Pieter Brueghel the younger (1564/1565–1637/1638)

 

Sir William Holburne believed his other Flemish roundel, the one depicting two boys blowing bubbles, to be by Pieter Bruegel’s grandson-in-law David Teniers II (1610–1690), probably because of the bold signature prominently marked on the wall to the right.

In 1906 The Holburne Museum’s then-curator, Hugh Blaker, surveyed the entire collection with distinguished restorer Ayerst Hooker Buttery. They dismissed this gem as ‘not genuine – bad’. The Friends of The Holburne recently enabled Seonaid Wood to clean this very dirty little panel, revealing delicate details like the rims of a second and third bubble, so fine they could be mistaken for scratches in the varnish, and the all-important signature. The attribution to David Teniers was confirmed by Sir Christopher White.

Boy Blowing Bubbles

Boy Blowing Bubbles c. 1640

David Teniers II (1610–1690)

 

In 2009, when the Holburne was closed for its major redevelopment, an opportunity arose to conserve just one of the pair of ‘merrymaking’ scenes once attributed to Pieter Bruegel the elder. The quality of both was very hard to judge because they had been clumsily restored during the early twentieth century. One, a version of the Visit to the Farmhouse, seemed to be of more interest than the much more famous Wedding Dance in the Open Air, which was judged to be ‘somewhat inferior’. A grant from the AIM/Pilgrim Trust conservation fund allowed Elizabeth Holford to spend a year restoring what X-rays revealed to be an extremely damaged painting. The fragile panel had lost much of its painted surface over the years, particularly in the lower-left quarter. Although the restorer had replaced the missing paint, they made several errors in reconstructing missing details. A comparison with other versions of Visit to the Farmhouse showed that the baby’s cradle had no rocker, and the sleeping dog had been replaced with an empty blanket. After cleaning off all the old varnish and the previous restorer’s overpaint, Elizabeth began the painstaking process of retouching, using reversible watercolour to join the remaining dots of the artist’s original paint. X-rays, infra-red reflectography and comparison with other versions showed that Visit to a Farmhouse was, as we had suspected, a version by Pieter Brueghel the younger made from his father’s original drawing.

Visit to a Farmhouse

Visit to a Farmhouse c.1620–1630

Pieter Brueghel the younger (1564/1565–1637/1638)

In 2015 the then-Director of the Holburne, Jennifer Scott, advised by Bruegel scholar Dr Amy Orrock, decided to ask Elizabeth Holford to tackle the ‘inferior’ Wedding Dance in the Open Air. The year-long project was generously funded by David Pike. Infrared imaging revealed a beautiful, intact underdrawing in Pieter the younger’s own hand. Advice from experts Christina Currie and Dominique Allart confirmed that what had been overlooked for many years was, in fact, the only version of this much-copied work by Pieter Brueghel the younger in a British collection. You can read more about the project in Alastair Sooke’s article.

Wedding Dance in the Open Air

Wedding Dance in the Open Air 1607-1614

Pieter Brueghel the younger (1564/1565–1637/1638)

 

The unprecedented success of The Holburne Museum’s current exhibition, 'Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty', has shown how research and conservation can transform a collection. Eight out of the 29 works in the exhibition have come from the home of Sir William Holburne and stand as worthy companions alongside paintings from such prestigious lenders as The National Gallery, British Museum and Ashmolean Museum. With the conservation and authentication of the three works by Pieter Brueghel the younger, the Holburne now boasts more paintings by this fascinating artist than any public collection in Britain. It’s enough to make an elderly Victorian gentleman very proud indeed.

Amina Wright, Senior Curator at The Holburne Museum

The exhibition 'Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty', curated by Jennifer Scott and Amy Orrock, is open daily at The Holburne Museum, Bath, until Sunday 4th June 2017. Closing soon!

An accompanying book, Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty (Philip Wilson Publishers, 2017) is available from The Holburne Museum's shop: www.holburne.org/shop

 

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