A painting on display in the former home of Sir Francis Drake, Buckland Abbey very well may turn out to be a self-portrait by the Dutch Master Rembrandt himself and valued at close to £20m. When Edna Lady Samuel of Wych Cross passed away in 2008, her estate gifted six Dutch paintings to the National Trust. The highlight of her generous donation was what could be a ‘lost’ Rembrandt. Rembrandt van Rijn, died in 1669 aged 63, is regarded as one of the greatest self portrait artists. It is thought that he painted 40-50 pictures of himself with 32 etchings and seven drawings known to experts.
Self-portrait, wearing a White Feathered Bonnet is a half-length portrait of the artist wearing a velvet cap with an ostrich feather, cloak and gorget (that’s a type of collar). The 91cm x 96cm picture was painted around 1636 and is attributed to the Studio of Rembrandt. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) is widely regarded as one of the most prolific self portraitists ever with experts estimating that he painted 40-50 pictures of himself in oils, 32 etchings and seven drawings.
When Prince Joseph-Wenzel von Liechtenstein (1696-1772) acquired the painting, it was understood it was a genuine Rembrandt. It was always considered genuine by Rembrandt scholars until art expert Horst Gerson reattributed it to painter Govert Flinck in 1968. Since then its authenticity has continued to be in doubt. The National Trust received the painting in 2010. When it came to Buckland Abbey last year, we picked up on the authenticity puzzle again. We know there are at least three copies worldwide, which may reflect a lost original in view of its high quality. Further investigations will need to be made.
In October, Ernst van de Wetering, Dutch art historian and Chair of the Rembrandt Research Project in Amsterdam, visited Buckland Abbey to study the self-portrait. He said he was convinced that the painting is an authentic work by Rembrandt and has subsequently included a colour reproduction, with the different arguments for the attribution, in an exhibition of Rembrandt’s 325 painted works in Amsterdam. Van de Wetering concluded that, although he believes it is genuine, it is impossible to be sure about the authorship of the painting without having it cleaned. We have now launched a technical investigation, starting with cleaning the portrait and restoring it to its original glory to see if a 100 per cent verification is possible. A full technical analysis, funded by £20,000 from the People’s Postcode Lottery, will include X-rays, examination of paint pigments, infrared testing to examine any drawing under the painting and tree-ring dating of the beech panel it is painted on.
The painting will remain on display in our dining room until late summer before going away for inspection. It will be returned once it’s been cleaned and the mystery is solved, for visitors to once again enjoy in 2014 at the 700-year-old home of Elizabethan seafarers Drake and Grenville. In the 13th century, Buckland Abbey was home to the Cistercian monks who built the abbey and the incredible Great Barn and farmed the then vast estate. The Abbey, now a house with a combination of furnished rooms and interactive museum galleries, tells the story of how two seafaring adventurers – Sir Richard Grenville and Sir Francis Drake – changed the shape of the house and the fate of the country.