Every year (well, for the last two years and maybe again next year) I spend a very enjoyable week’s intensive study of art history at the summer school run by the Courtauld Institute of Art in Central London. They run the school over four weeks, with eight separate courses offered each week. In 2105 I joined a course in Gothic Art, and this year my choice was to learn about the depiction of nature in Northern European art from 1550 to 1750.
The courses are tutored by world-class art historians, and they work you hard. On most days, there are lectures all the morning and gallery visits in the afternoons. It’s difficult and exhausting and you have to look and look and look at image after image after image, and I love every minute of it. I start the course knowing absolutely nothing about the subject, and at the end of the week I know very slightly more than nothing, but think I know everything.
One afternoon on this year’s course was spent looking at drawings in the Courtauld drawings study room, where they have one of the best collections anywhere. After the two-hour session, I considered myself, of course, fully conversant with the entire subject area, and eager to try my skills at examining and identifying drawings.
To this end I invested a very small amount (£16.00) at a local auction here in Edinburgh in the purchase of an old drawing, unsigned and unidentified. I brought it home last week thinking that with my finely-honed critical and analytical faculties born of two hours’ study, I would be able rapidly and with minimal effort to identify it definitively, and, more than likely, to unveil it to the world not only as random treasure, but as a lost masterpiece.
The picture is about 32 cms by 45 cms on plain paper which might have had a light brown wash applied. The drawing of classical ruins against a hilly landscape is done in dark brown ink, with washes in two or three shades of brown and grey. The perspective in the windows of the ruined building is heightened by white chalk. The whole looks as if it has been rapidly executed, but the composition seemed to me to be effective, and the foliage in the foreground appeared well-done. I had a feeling is that it was something more than a daub by an amateur. It clearly had some considerable age, being in fairly tattered condition.
I started to browse on Google images. Within around thirty seconds of dipping my toes in the water I knew deep down that I had almost completely forgotten everything I had learned in the summer, and was totally out of my depth and floundering. However, undeterred, I persisted, and within a few hours, bingo! A positive identification! I’d admit of no other possibility. No other artist has ever sketched foreground foliage in that particular way! The composition looks similar! It looks about the right age! The use of pen and different shades of wash seems identical! Yes! Absolutely! It’s a Rembrandt!!!
Not wishing to sound too excited, I wrote emails in sober terms to the curator of the Drawings Study Room at the Courtauld and to one of the drawings specialists at Christie’s, attaching a photo of my picture. I asked politely if they could provide any advice on where it’s from, who painted it, how old it might be, and if it’s any good. I do this sort of thing whenever I’m trying to identify an item of random treasure, and I almost invariably get courteous and helpful replies, even on the not infrequent occasions when my excitement and enthusiasm overwhelm my common sense and art-critical skills.
In the last couple of days I’ve received replies from both of the specialists. They agree that my drawing is from the nineteenth or possibly eighteenth century and by an unknown and unidentifiable British or possibly French hand. So, wrong century and wrong country for Rembrandt. No random treasure this time.
Neither expert responded to my question about the merit of the drawing, from which I infer that their opinion is that it doesn’t have much (if any). However, I like it and will be happy to keep it if I can find a spare patch of wall to hang it on.