Monday, 18 February 2019

The Lost Caravaggio: I

Photo Credit: National Gallery of Ireland


IN 1993 the National Gallery of Ireland announced that it had found in Dublin and authenticated a missing Caravaggio painting known as ‘The Taking of Christ’.

How did it come to be in Dublin?

And is it really the missing Caravaggio painting of that subject? 

THE story of how the painting came to be in Dublin is both simple and tragic.

Percival Lea-Wilson was born into a middle-class family in Brompton, London, in April, 1887.

His grandfather Samuel Wilson had been Lord Mayor of the City of London in 1838, his father was a stockbroker.

Percival was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford.

He joined the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1909.

In 1914 he married Marie Ryan, daughter of a Cork solicitor, enlisted in the Royal Irish Rifles on the outbreak of war with Germany, and served on the Western Front where he was severely wounded.

He had re-joined the RIC by March 1916 and was stationed in Dublin during the Easter Rising.

HE was placed in charge of a group of Irish Republican prisoners who had surrendered and who were being kept at the Rotunda Hospital.

It is easy to imagine that a British officer who had himself been wounded and who had seen countless men killed in the war would not have had much sympathy for his prisoners who had rebelled against the Crown at a time when Britain was engaged in all-out war on land and sea, particularly as the Proclamation of the rebels had recited the support of their ‘gallant allies abroad’ i.e. the Germans who had supplied them with arms.

Republicans claimed that he mistreated his prisoners, particularly Thomas Clarke, at 59 the oldest man to have taken part in the Rising and first of the seven signatories to the Proclamation of Independence.

They alleged that Clark was stripped naked on the steps of the Rotunda Hospital, in front of the other prisoners (who included Michael Collins) and female nursing staff, and that Lea-Wilson had said ‘That old bastard is Commander-in-Chief. He keeps a tobacco shop across the street. Nice general for your f*****g army’. 

FOUR years later, on the morning of 15 June 1920, Lea-Wilson was a District Inspector of the RIC based in a quiet town, Gorey, County Wexford.

Dressed in civilian clothes, he walked home from the railway station where he had bought a newspaper and was shot dead by an IRA gang of five gunmen, including Liam Tobin, one of his Rotunda prisoners.

That evening, in the Wicklow Hotel in Dublin, Michael Collins met another Rotunda prisoner, Joe Sweeney, who had been elected as a Sinn Fein MP in 1918, asked if he remembered Lea-Wilson and said that ‘We got him today in Gorey’. 

HIS childless widow, Marie, was, of course, distraught at his murder.

The following year, 1921, aged 34, she started a course in medicine at Trinity College Dublin.

She graduated in 1928 and pursued a career as a paediatrician in the Children’s Hospital, Dublin which continued until her death in 1971 aged 84.

In 1921 she went on holiday to Edinburgh and while there bought a 16th century painting labelled as ‘The Betrayal of Christ’ by Gerard Honthorst

GERRIT VAN HONTHORST was a Dutchman, a painter of the Utrecht school, who had studied in Rome where he had been influenced by Caravaggio and used the same technique of chiaroscuro, a ‘dramatic mingling of light and dark’.

He is a respected Baroque artist who is said to have influenced Rembrandt and whose paintings are now held in the National Gallery and Hampton Court Palace in London, in the Getty museum and in the Museum of Art, both in Los Angeles, and three of his paintings hang in the National Gallery of Ireland. 

AN auction catalogue shows that this painting sold for 8 guineas (£8.40p) in Edinburgh in 1921.

It was large, 4 feet 4 inches by 5 feet 7 inches, and dark.

It then hung in the drawing room of Dr Lea-Wilson’s house in Fitzwilliam Place for the next ten years. 

Because of her distress at the murder of her husband, Marie had taken advice from a Father Thomas Finlay, a member of the Society of Jesus living in their community at 35 Lower Leeson Street, Dublin, and a Professor of Political Economy at University College Dublin.

He became ‘her friend, philosopher and guide’.

Sometime in the 1930’s she presented him with the Honthorst painting as thanks for his spiritual guidance and it hung for some years above the fireplace in the Jesuits’ dining room and later in their parlour until 1990.

IN that year, a new Superior of the community, Noel Barber, who had been commissioned to renovate the Leeson Street property, asked Dr Brian Kennedy, Assistant Director of the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI), to inspect the community’s collection of paintings.

Dr Kennedy agreed that the NGI would restore the Honthorst in return for the Jesuits making it available for exhibitions when required.

DR KENNEDY had brought with him to the Jesuits’ house the Gallery’s Assistant Restorer, an Italian named Sergio Benedetti.

On seeing the painting for the first time Mr. Benedetti, an enthusiast for Caravaggio, thought that it was either a very good copy of a Caravaggio painting, ‘The Taking of Christ’, which had been missing for several hundred years or, almost impossible to believe, the missing original itself.

He shared that thought with Dr. Kennedy, the Director of the Gallery and the Chief Restorer in strict confidence.

THE painting was brought to the Restoration Studio at the NGI and over the next two years was cleaned and relined.

It had been obscured by a mixture of yellowed varnish, smoke-tar and dust which had to be removed with the most painstaking care, using the least abrasive solvent possible, starting with pure water and adding acetone and alcohol until an effective mix had been obtained.

As the ‘windows’ to the canvas were opened inch-by-inch, the full, rich colours of the painting were revealed with details such as rust on a soldier’s helmet within its dramatic mixture of light and shade.

THE hemp canvas appeared to have the same thread count as a known Caravaggio in Rome.

There were traces of an earlier cleaning when too much paint had been removed showing changes of detail.

These ‘pentimenti’, changes of design by the artist which had been overpainted, are unlikely to be present in a copy of an original.

There were score marks in the paint, made with the wooden end of the paintbrush, a known Caravaggio technique.

Sergio Benedetti worried about the portrayal of an arm, which he thought too short, but that was a problem of perspective.

It had the craquelure to be expected of a 400-year-old painting and some sagging within its frame but was otherwise in relatively good physical condition.

To be continued...

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