Do you know who painted the unassuming picture hanging in your living room or the one abandoned in the attic? If the answer is no, you’re in good company.
Astonishingly, there are over 17,500 “unattributed” oil paintings – or by an “unknown” artist – in UK public art collections alone.
This huge Aladdin’s cave of “orphaned” pictures is prime hunting ground for Fake or Fortune’s Philip Mould and Bendor Grosvenor, together with co-presenter Fiona Bruce.
In the final episode of the series they investigate a number of unattributed works spotted on the BBC Your Paintings website, in the hope they are actually by the hand of Thomas Gainsborough, one of Britain’s greatest ever artists.
These potential Gainsboroughs could be highly valuable paintings that have been, until now, off the artistic radar or tantalisingly known as “sleepers”. If this is the case, how many other works by great masters could be secretly hiding in our national art collection?
And if they are by Gainsborough, how could they have slid from being highly prized possessions and status symbols to the wilderness of a museum storeroom filed under “artist unknown”?
Unfortunately, many paintings lose their association with an artist years before they are gifted to a museum, in the same way other family possessions might be overlooked or neglected over generations.
But it’s condition that Philip Mould thinks is the most common reason they are lost from view or wrongly catalogued.
“The quality and the idiosyncrasies of a painting can get lost in time through the accumulation of dirt; varnishes turning yellow and brown; and through over-paint [during restoration] which can cover the defining brush strokes that will attach a work of art to an artist.”
Other complicating impairments can include: canvases hacked down to fit into another frame; over-zealous or amateur cleaning which can strip away colour; smoke damage from tobacco or fires; and details painted out or in, including the re-dressing of nudes or the brightening of sunrises.