The Back of a Painting: The Stories Behind an Artwork

ARTHUR BOYD (1920-1999)
Evening Shoreline c.1968

Every artwork has a story, and it is the role of the art specialist to weave together as many fragments of that story as possible.  In today’s technological age, records are more available than ever before but there’s still something to be said for examining the physical painting to piece the clues together. Whilst the front of the painting often directs the value, it is the back of the painting that often completes the story.

The back of a painting can be a great way of tracing provenance. These can include gallery or auction labels and inscriptions. Our September sale features a beautiful coastal scene by Arthur Boyd, lot 19. Upon first sighting this work, our team noticed the exposed back of the canvas, revealing an intriguing series of inscriptions in white chalk and on the stretcher bar. Not only did this reveal the painting’s title to us, “Evening Shoreline”, but also its provenance of Australian Galleries. The team at Australian Galleries were incredibly helpful in tracing back the catalogue number of the painting which showed that the work came into their gallery in February 1974 when they were organising Arthur Boyd’s Jonah exhibition. These clues not only confirmed the painting’s title and approximate date, but also solidified the chronology of this newly rediscovered painting.

On occasion, our specialists here can be faced with a work that is unsigned (as is the artist’s prerogative). This is where the back of the painting can become crucial to fulfilling the necessary steps of confirming authenticity. In the case of lot 6, we were blessed with a plethora of information on the back of this beautiful Rupert Bunny! Past auction stickers and gallery labels provided a recent history of ownership, but the real delight was in sighting Sir Daryl Lindsay’s original label. As co-trustee of the Estate of Rupert Bunny, and then Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Mr. Lindsay’s label certifies the work’s authenticity. For such a petite work, the back revealed a big story.

TOM ROBERTS (1856-1931)
Happy Cottage, Goulburn Valley 1927
Sold for $96,100

But, what about works that are intentionally “unsigned” in the traditional sense, as is the case with many works by Australian Indigenous artists? For these artworks, the back of the work can reveal invaluable information. A signature may not always be evident, so on the back of the painting we are seeking clues of provenance especially catalogue numbers relating to arts centres and galleries as well as inscriptions that may pertain to the artist’s story and therefore the work’s applicable title. The verso of lot 74 by Nyurapaiya Nampitjinpa (aka Mrs. Bennett) gives us many clues. The artist’s name is inscribed followed by a very important Papunya Tula catalogue number NN0304182. This confirms the works authenticity from a premium arts centre, but also progressively reveals the artist (NN), the year painted (03), and the prescribed number for the painting in the Papunya Tula archives. This is a unique catalogue number that can only apply to one painting making it invaluable in tracing the work’s provenance but also solidifying authenticity.

When looking at a work of art we can often judge it on face value, but in the world of research and appraisals the back can be the most intriguing. From stamps to stickers and even secondary works, the verso tells a story all its own.

Olivia Fuller, Head of Art

17 September, 2020