Houghton art experts trace forgotten gem

Richard Parr Art experts from Houghton have played a crucial role in uncovering a rare centuries-old Flemish masterpiece that has set the art world buzzing with excitement.

Richard Parr

Art experts from Houghton have played a crucial role in uncovering a rare centuries-old Flemish masterpiece that has set the art world buzzing with excitement.

Four years of painstaking research have led to two halves of a painting, believed to have been sawn in half by a greedy art dealer over a century ago, being reunited.

The keen eye of an art conservator focused on a small painting in an West Country village church and, together with fellow art conservators from Houghton identified it as a previously unknown masterpiece by the greatest early 16th century Flemish artist, Quentin Metsys . Its estimated value is believed to be more than �500,000.

Metsys' best-known work, The Ugly Duchess, is regularly voted the most popular picture in the National Gallery.

But the painter also produced a series of religious paintings of which the one discovered in the Wiltshire country church of the Holy Trinity, is considered one of the earliest and finest.

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Kiffy Stainer Hutchins and her senior conservator, Hugo Platt , based at art conservation studios close to historic Houghton Hall, took on the role of art detectives and, after four years of painstaking research, revealed that the painting, Christ Blessing, was actually one half of a picture that also depicted the Virgin Mary. It is believed it was sawn in half more than a century ago by a greedy art dealer hoping to double his money.

Experts were able to temporarily re-unite the two halves at the National Gallery where the prized painting was taken for further studies to be carried out.

Ms Stainer Hutchins described it as a once-in-lifetime discovery of world significance. “When they were put together on an easel it was such exciting spine-chilling moment. The two pictures fitted together like a jig-saw”.

A key to the whole discovery process was that Ms Stainer Hutchins had recalled 20 years ago seeing a Metsys portrait of the Virgin Mary that had been painted on two boards.

Christ Blessing was one of the earliest paintings Metsys was known to have produced and was to influence all future paintings of Christ and this is why the discovery is of such significance, said Ms Stainer Hutchins.

Art historians hope that eventually they will be restored as a complete picture. In the shorter term, there is a possibility of the two pictures being exhibited together which could be as soon as 18 months.

The fascinating detective story began when Simon Watney, a conservation advisor to the Church Monuments Society, visited Holy Trinity Church in Bradford-on-Avon and the dark oil painting caught his eye.

He later returned with Ms Stainer Hutchins and it was then that his gaze came upon “a little portrait of Christ in a horrible plastic-looking frame”.

He said: “I was amazed by the quality and I said straight away, 'this is a Quentin Metsys' ”.

Ms Stainer Hutchins said the research over four years had to be thorough because the painting's attribution to Metsys had to be proved beyond doubt academically.

“This is a find of world importance in the art world and particularly important in the story of the history of art,” she said.

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