Who’s That Chap? UK Art Detective Is On The Case

I recently became aware of an online art forum which could prove to be highly addictive.

The charitable group known as ArtUK began in 2003 as the “Public Catalogue Foundation”, a charitable group dedicated to cataloguing all of the oil paintings held in British public collections, the vast majority of which are not on view due to limited resources. In 2016, the Foundation was rebranded to the more user-friendly moniker of “ArtUK”, and currently holds information on over 200k pictures. Future plans for the charity include cataloguing all of the thousands of works of sculpture held in public trust throughout Britain.

Among the stated goals of the group is increasing the amount of available information about publically-owned works of art, “through crowdsourcing expertise.” One of the ways in which the public can get involved in this effort is through participating in the online forum called “Art Detective” hosted on ArtUK’s website. Works such as this early 20th-century portrait of a previously-unknown figure are posted in a discussion thread, and participants can use their own knowledge and expertise to comment and attempt to help public institutions gain greater knowledge about the works in their care through a collaborative effort.

(c) Royal Free Hospital; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

At this point, for example, we now know that this formerly unidentified painting is a portrait of Dr. Charles Brehmer Heald (1882–1974), a physician at the Royal Free Hospital in London. From clues such as the hairstyle, clothing, and apparent age of the subject, consensus seems to be that the picture dates to sometime before World War I. Dr. Heald would have been in his mid- to late-30’s, and he’s dressed as a stylish chap of his era would be: high tab collar, large mustache, and the sort of slicked back, long on top/short on the sides hairstyle that the Edwardians often favored. The next big question, now that the sitter has been identified, is to figure out who painted this portrait, and when and where they did so.

Currently there are over 300 such discussions posted on Art Detective, but I suspect as more potential users become aware of this resource, they’ll want to get involved. People love a good mystery, and they also love sharing their personal expertise, in order to help others who may have gotten bogged down in something they’re working on. Much as people researching their ancestry, trying to build a cosplay suit, or growing heirloom tomatoes can sometimes get stuck trying to locate information or ideas, art identification is an area where many public museums, galleries, and historic houses can benefit from contributions not just from art experts, but from people with interests in a wide variety of fields, such as armor and weapons, period costume, social history and customs, local genealogy, and so on.

Take this painting of a fellow who lived several centuries before Dr. Heard, for example. This may be a portrait of Christopher Herbert (1532/1533 (?)–25 June 1590), one-time Lord Mayor of the city of York. He was an exact contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I, and a member of a large and important Yorkshire family. The ArtUK discussion on this painting reveals that there is some dispute over which member of the Herbert family he might be, and the posts contain some interesting history about that clan’s genealogy and activities during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Herbert

One of the particularly interesting discussions in the forum on the subject of authorship concerns whether this is a work by Antonio Moro – or more properly, Anthonis Mor (c.1517-1577), a Dutch artist who spent a great deal of time in the service of the Spanish Habsburgs. While Mor spent a great deal of time in Spain, he also got back home to The Netherlands many times, and visited England on at least a few occasions. In 1553 for example, he was sent to London to paint a very famous portrait of the Emperor Charles V’s first cousin, Mary I, the only surviving child of Henry VIII and the Emperor’s aunt, Katherine of Aragon, at the time of Mary’s coronation as Queen of England. You be the judge as to whether the Herbert portrait is by Mor, but at first glance, there is much to suggest that it might be.

There’s much more of this sort of thing on the ArtUK website, and it’s encouraging to see how UK institutions are making use of this resource to better inform themselves, historians, and the public about the art currently held in public trust. It’s also interesting that there isn’t – so far as I’m aware – anything else like this online at the moment in the US, or indeed for ordinary people. On the public side of things, it would be great to see the development of a national database of all of the paintings held in public collections around the country.

In addition, I suspect that there’s a big, untapped market for this kind of identification on the private side of things as well, otherwise shows like Antiques Roadshow would not be running for years and years. There are a few paintings in my personal collection that are not hugely valuable – or not valuable enough to pay an art historian to go research, anyway – where I have little information on either the artist or the subject, and about which I’d like to learn more through crowdsourcing. Perhaps one of my readers with technical savvy and an entrepreneurial bent could come up with something like this for amateur art collectors? I bet there are quite a few advertisers – Ebay, 1stDibs, Chairish – who would love to target visitors to such a forum.

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