Your Paintings: A Culture Show Special to uncover a Van Dyck at The Bowes Museum

To find a portrait by Van Dyck is rare enough, but to find one of his 'friendship' portraits like this, of the wife of his best friend in England, is extraordinarily lucky."Dr Bendor Grosvenor, art historian and dealer
Date: 09.03.2013     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.14
Category: BBC Two
A 17th century painting, discovered on the BBC Your Paintings website, will be confirmed as an original Van Dyck masterpiece during Your Paintings: A Culture Show Special, transmitting at 6.30pm on BBC Two on Saturday 9 March 2013.

Dr Bendor Grosvenor, an art historian and dealer, recognised the painting on the Your Paintings website and proposed an investigation into its origin. During Your Paintings: A Culture Show Special, Dr Grosvenor assists Culture Show presenter and art critic Alastair Sooke in taking the painting on a journey to be restored and examined by a series of art experts, who are able to verify the hand of the master.

The 72.4cm x 61cm oval oil painting portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter (d.1633), lady-in-waiting to Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I, was made in the 1630s. It is housed in the collection of The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, near County Durham, where until now it has been listed as ‘a copy after Sir Anthony Van Dyck’. Not usually on public display, it was photographed in 2008 by the Public Catalogue Foundation and uploaded to the BBC Your Paintings website as part of a 10-year project to make the entire national collection of oil paintings available online.

The Culture Show investigation shows a process of identification which usually takes place behind closed doors. Firstly the painting is removed from storage and the Bowes Museum archives are checked for any paper records relating to it. Dr Grosvenor then takes the painting to Libby Sheldon, an art history research associate at University College London, for a paint sample analysis. While this takes place, Alastair meets artist Alison Watt at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh – to examine one of Van Dyck’s great group portraits and find out what sets him apart as an artist. Libby’s paint sample results reveal that the portrait was painted in 17th century – but that doesn’t prove it is by Van Dyck.

The painting appears to be in bad condition. Before an expert can give an opinion, the work needs to be cleaned and restored – to remove the dirt and old varnish and reveal the original colours and brush-work beneath. Bendor takes the painting to specialist art conservator, Simon Gillespie, to begin this process.

The restored painting is finally examined by the UK’s leading Van Dyck expert, Professor Christopher Brown, Director of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, who confirms the attribution as a late English-period Van Dyck.

Dr Bendor Grosvenor, Culture Show presenter, art historian and dealer says: “To find a portrait by Van Dyck is rare enough, but to find one of his 'friendship' portraits like this, of the wife of his best friend in England, is extraordinarily lucky. Although as part of our national heritage values are irrelevant, for insurance purposes it should now be valued at anything up to £1 million. Had it appeared at auction as a copy, and in its dirty state, it would probably only have been estimated at about £3,000-5,000.”

Janet Lee, Editor of BBC Culture Show says: "The Culture Show team relished the opportunity to collaborate with the Your Paintings project, which really is an amazing resource for the British public. The discovery of an original Van Dyck was thrilling for all involved, not least the staff of The Bowes Museum, who were absolutely delighted."

Adrian Jenkins, Director of The Bowes Museum, says: “This is a thrilling attribution for The Bowes Museum and the end of a chain of events that began with the photography of the entire collection five years ago for the Public Catalogue Foundation. We are very grateful to Bendor for his work in identifying both the sitter and artist of this painting and re-instating it to its original glory!”

Andrew Ellis from the Public Catalogue Foundation says: "Many thousands of the oil paintings owned by the Nation are without artist attributions and sitter identities. Until recently most of these paintings were not photographed. Now that they are all photographed and can be seen on the Your Paintings website, the probability of minor and major discoveries has increased substantially."

Thanks to the Your Paintings project, over 210,000 works have been painstakingly uncovered, photographed and put online – some for the very first time - allowing art experts and amateur-sleuths alike to make connections and discoveries that wouldn’t have been possible before. Paintings by over 37,000 artists are on the Your Paintings website, including Old Masters and works by leading British artists. Just under 30,000 paintings do not have firm artist attributions, leaving the possibility of important discoveries in years to come.

In a pioneering use of crowd-sourcing, the public is invited to contribute to this process by ‘tagging’ paintings in their local collections on the website. This data will allow future users of the Your Paintings website to easily find paintings by subjects, themes and events that interest them. The tagging process doesn’t require expert knowledge. Those members of the public who do have specific new information or expert views about paintings are invited to contact the Public Catalogue Foundation through the Art Detective feature on each painting page on the Your Paintings website.

Taken together, this collection of over 210,000 paintings presents an unparalleled insight into the nation’s culture and history. The vast majority of the collection has never been photographed before. Held in over 3,000 galleries, museums and other civic buildings around the country, they span over 600 years of art history – arguably the greatest national collection of its kind in the world. The National Trust is the largest single collection on the website with 12,567 paintings however, approximately half of the collections on the site have ten or fewer paintings. Due to limitations of exhibition space, 80% of these works are normally held in storage and until now have not easily been visible to the people who own them - the UK public.

To see and tag Your Paintings and find out more about visiting participating galleries, museums and public buildings, please visit:

For more information contact: EF/SH6

Notes to editors

About Your Paintings

Your Paintings is a website which aims to show the entire UK national collection of oil paintings, the stories behind the paintings, and where to see them for real. It is made up of paintings from thousands of museums and other public institutions around the country. Your Paintings is a joint initiative between the BBC, the Public Catalogue Foundation (a registered charity) and participating collections and museums from across the UK. To help the PCF and BBC identify and catalogue what can be seen in each painting, the public is being invited to ‘tag’ the paintings.

For more information go to

About the Public Catalogue Foundation

The PCF is a registered charity. It was launched in 2003 to create a photographic record of all the oil (together with acrylic and tempera) paintings in public ownership in the United Kingdom. In addition to publishing its work online, the PCF is also publishing a series of printed catalogues. Now that the oil painting project is complete the PCF will focus on two strategic priorities. First, it will work on updating and enriching the oil painting records. Secondly, it will look to digitise other art objects, starting with the nation’s sculpture collection. The Director is Andrew Ellis.

For more information go to