Why are some pieces lost to time? Whether it’s an artist re-using the same canvas likely due to a scarcity of materials, or pieces falling to custodians who are unaware of their inherent value, we take a look at three recently rediscovered masterpieces in Australia.
Frederick McCubbin’s Found
In November 2020, well into Melbourne’s covid lockdown, the head of conservation for the National Gallery of Victoria, Michael Varcoe-Cocks, decided to take advantage of the empty gallery by turning all the lights off and giving each piece on the walls a once-over with a flashlight. After casting his light upon Frederick McCubbin’s seminal painting The Pioneer, Varcoe-Cocks detected evidence of a painting hiding underneath. Further x-ray examination of the painting confirmed his suspicions with the brush marks detected perfectly matching up to those of an earlier painting by McCubbin which had been missing for over a century. Found, which depicts a life-size bushman holding a small child, was previously known solely through a small black-and-white photograph included in the artist’s scrapbook (pictured left). It is now confirmed to have been the genesis of the iconic large-scale triptych, The Pioneer, and lies hidden in plain sight in the collection of the NGV.
A Dutch Still Life Attributed to Gerrit Willemsz Heda
Woodford Academy is the oldest complex of colonial buildings in the Blue Mountains, NSW, originally built as an inn in the 1830s. Since then, it has undergone a variety of identity changes including as a gentleman’s residence, guest house, boarding house, and from 1907-1936 an exclusive school. When the property was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1979 it was turned in to a museum. Earlier this year a selection of 36 artworks were sent to conservators including the Dutch still life which had been housed within the building for almost 150 years. It was thought it might date to the 17th century but they never dreamed it could be a masterpiece. Upon cleaning the painting and removing centuries-old varnish, the restorers discovered a tiny signature on the knife belonging to Gerrit Willemsz Heda, the son of famed artist Willem Claesz Heda whose paintings sell for millions of dollars. Further research is still being conducted but it’s thought that the painting could perhaps be a collaboration between father and son and dates from 1640 when the younger Heda was still a teenager. The full provenance of the painting is not known but the prevailing theory as to how it landed on Australian shores is that it was acquired in the 1870s by Alfred Fairfax who bought Woodford House and refurbished it as a gentleman’s country retreat and later an up-market guesthouse.
Tom Roberts’ Rejection
In 2013 a small painting was listed for auction at Bamfords Auctioneers in the UK at an estimate of £60-£100. For sale from a private UK vendor, the painting bore the signature of Tom Roberts but had not been authenticated by the auction house. Joe and Rosanna Natoli from Maroochydore, QLD, took a gamble on buying the painting (and paying well over the modest estimate) to bring it back to Australia for further research in the hopes of successfully attributing it to the renowned Australian artist. Their hopes were dashed when an expert ruled it out as an authentic work and the painting sat in a cupboard for years. However, in 2017 a friend of the couple submitted the painting to the BBC television program Fake or Fortune and to their surprise it was accepted for investigation. The team flew out to Australia to conduct tests and research which uncovered some incredible evidence. The painting was dated to the late 19th century, coinciding with the time Roberts studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, UK (1881-1884) as the first Australian to do so. Infrared technology showed an inscription and address on the back of the painting which aligned with records of Roberts’ address when he submitted paintings to the Royal Academy for exhibition. Original sketchbooks held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney showed a series of preparatory sketches with similarities in their compositions to the painting. Finally, the painting was shown to Lisa Roberts, the artist’s great-granddaughter, and Mary Eagle of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a leading authority on Tom Roberts. The painting was declared to be genuine, and its estimated value now sits between $500,000-700,000.
MADELEINE NORTON / Associate Head of Decorative Arts & Art, Sydney
Banner Image Detail: Frederick McCubbin, Found, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Gift of Hugh McCubbin, 1960. This digital record has been made available on NGV Collection Online through the generous support of the Joe White Bequest. The photograph found within the pages of the artist’s scrapbook provides the only visual record of the painting.