The ‘ rebirth ‘ features of Masterpiece in BBC Four series as conservatives consider doodle beneath painting
A section of Botticelli’s painting of Madonna and Child that was rejected as a crude copy. Photo: BBC / PA
For more than 500 years, a doodle of a man’s head unseen has helped convince experts that a drawing in the Wales National Museum is almost definitely a real Botticelli. The Cardiff National Museum has displayed a painting of a Madonna and Child who had been rejected for decades as a distorted imitation of the style of Botticelli.
Sadly, the collector Gwendoline Davies, who bequeathed it in 1952, had thought it was a Botticelli. It soon began to be challenged by experts and downgraded to copy status.
The rediscovery story was recorded in an episode from the Lost Masterpieces of Britain’s BBC Four series, featuring a group of art detectives headed by Bendor Grosvenor, the art historian. He remembered seeing the painting in the museum store and being hit by the Madonna’s face’s “extraordinary beauty.”
“In spite of all the overpaints, parts of it reminded me of the most famous painting by Botticelli, The Birth of Venus. I am now persuaded that Botticelli has played an important part in its production and I am delighted that he has once again been on public display.”
It was the curator Simon Gillespie’s cleaning and evaluation that exposed the painting’s remarkable value. Infra-red photographs revealed Botticelli’s studio’s usual under-drawing, along with numerous changes to areas such as hands showing that the painting was not a mere copy. Also revealed was a doodle almost certainly by Botticelli.
Gillespie discovered that the arched backdrop was a forger’s work, inserted in the early 20th century, possibly to hide the fact that a larger work had significantly reduced the size of the painting. It was decided to maintain the added background to reflect the history of the painting.
Gillespie said the work was both nerve-racking and thrilling. “Because of the fragility of the panel and the original paint layers we had to proceed millimeter by millimeter. Removing the dust and old varnish to reveal the true beauty of the features of the Madonna felt like witnessing a masterpiece’s rebirth.
Even museum has also been involved in the research and conservation.
Adam Webster, National Museum Wales ‘ chief conservator, said that the project demonstrated the crucial role that conservation plays in the proper understanding or heritage. “We are delighted with and grateful for the results. The painting now sits beautifully in our galleries and I hope fans of the series will come and enjoy this masterpiece.”
Laurence Kanter, Yale University Art Gallery’s chief curator and an expert on the works of Botticelli, said: “Clearly this beautiful painting came from Botticelli’s studio. Probably Botticelli himself is responsible for more than a bit of it. A great deal more study is needed to solve the riddles of ‘how much’, ‘what parts’, ‘why’, ‘when’, and hopefully the painting can now be studied further by scholars and the public alike.”


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