BBC Four’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces discovers rare painting by 17th Century master Jacob Jordaens

Presenters Dr Bendor Grosvenor and Jacky Klein have undertaken a nationwide search through Britain’s publicly owned art collections – over 210,00 paintings – for the new BBC Four series ‘Britain’s Lost Masterpieces’.

At first glance, this painting looked to be a non-starter. But despite all the over-paint, which was some of the worst I have ever seen, there were glimpses of a great painting fighting to come out.
— Dr Bendor Grosvenor

The first of these discoveries, previously hidden in the store rooms of the Swansea Museum in Wales, has been identified as a rare and highly important 17th century masterpiece by Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens - a pupil of Peter Paul Rubens who dominated painting in Flanders in the mid-17th century.

Catalogued as a work by an unknown 18th century artist, the painting was previously unknown to art historians but is in fact a rare preparatory oil study by Jordaens, dated to c.1620, for one of his best known works, the ancient Greek legend Atalanta & Meleager, which hangs in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

The current auction record for a work by Jordaens is held by another study of a similar size, Saint Martin Healing the Possessed Man, It which sold for $4.7m in New York earlier this year.

The painting was identified by the art historian Bendor Grosvenor, after first seeing the painting on the Art UK website. Along with co-presenter Jacky Klein and art restorer Simon Gillespie, Grosvenor overturned decades of art historical convention to prove the new attribution. They also successfully reversed the work of an unknown local artist or restorer, who in the latter half of the 20th century had extensively repainted and altered large sections of the composition to give the horses pink manes, change the colour of the sky from an overcast grey to a vivid blue, and add a large red nipple on the figure of Atalanta.

A vital clue came with the discovery of a series of merchant’s marks on the back of the wooden panels used to make the Swansea painting. These - a combination of the letter ‘A’ and the coat of arms of the city of Antwerp, Jordaens’ home town - proved that the panel must have been made between 1619 and 1621, and could not have been a later copy.

The attribution was confirmed by the Director of the Rubenshuis Museum in Antwerp, Ben van Beneden, who said “It’s a great find. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that we’re looking at a quintessential painting by Jordaens.”

Art historians will now have to re-consider their understanding of Jordaens’ career. The Atalanta & Meleager in the Prado museum was originally believed to have been made in two separate stages between 1620 and the 1640s in the Prado Museum, due to it being painted on two separate canvases stitched together. Consequently, the painting in the Swansea Museum was believed to be a copy, created years later.

However, Dr Grosvenor’s research has proved that Jordaens made the painting in the Prado Museum all at once. By comparing the Atalanta & Meleager with other works by Jordaens at the time, Grosvenor deduced that - as one of the standard widths of canvas available to artists like Jordaens in Flanders in the 17th century was 120cm - the artist had simply been buying standard canvas widths and altering them to fit his larger compositions. The painting in Swansea could and has been proven to be, a preparatory study by Jordaens and not a copy.

Dr Bendor Grosvenor says: “At first glance, this painting looked to be a non-starter. But despite all the over-paint, which was some of the worst I have ever seen, there were glimpses of a great painting fighting to come out. Fortunately, we were able to reveal a picture that was not only important and beautiful in itself, but one which helps us to re-write the story of one of my favourite artists, Jacob Jordaens.”

Britain’s Lost Masterpieces (3 x 60) is presented by Dr Bendor Grosvenor and Jacky Klein. It is produced by Tern TV and was commissioned by Mark Bell, Head of Arts Commissioning, BBC. The Executive Producer for the BBC is Emma Cahusac. The series is produced in partnership with Art UK. The painting by Jacob Jordaens, housed in the Swansea Museum was first discovered by Dr. Grosvenor on Art UK – the new online database of the UK’s publicly owned art.

Notes to Editors

Art UK, previously called the Public Catalogue Foundation, is a small charity. It works in partnership with some 3,000 public collections, the BBC and other organisations to showcase the art the UK owns. The website is the online home for art from every public collection in the United Kingdom. The site already features over 200,000 oil paintings by 38,000 artists. These artworks are in museums, universities, town halls, hospitals and other civic buildings across the UK. Most of this art is not on public view. Art UK is now expanding to include watercolours, pastels, drawings and prints uploaded by collections. And in early 2017 Art UK aims to add sculptures. Members of the public can contribute knowledge about artworks on the website through Art UK’s Art Detective initiative. Over the last two years this has resulted in many interesting discoveries relating to the identity of people and places in paintings as well as some artist re-attributions.