A completely unknown portrait by Thomas Gainsborough has been discovered, to the excitement of scholars of art and music as it is thought to depict an unjustly forgotten musician who was well known in 18th-century Britain.
A painting of a man holding a scroll of manuscript music was described only as “British School” when it surfaced in France in December, selling in a Paris auction for around £2,500.
Hugh Belsey, a world authority on Gainsborough, told the Observer that layers of accumulated dirt, discoloured varnishes and mismatched overpaint had concealed the master’s hand and that the picture’s conservation has now revealed the sensitivity of Gainsborough’s brushstrokes and the brilliance of his draughtsmanship.
“This is a really exciting addition to his work,” he said. “It is so rare to find a picture that’s totally unknown.”
The £2,500 sale price pales against the picture’s true value. Comparable portraits of that size have exceeded £1m, with the much larger Portrait of Miss Read, Later Mrs William Villebois, selling for £6.5m in 2011.
Belsey is a former director of Gainsborough’s House, the museum and art gallery at the artist’s birthplace in Sudbury, Suffolk, where he helped to build up one of the world’s largest collections of the artist’s work. His Catalogue Raisonné of the artist’s portraits, a definitive study, was published by Yale University Press in 2019.
Dating the rediscovered portrait, an oil on canvas measuring 76.2cm x 63.5cm, to around 1768, he pointed to strong evidence that its sitter is the bohemian composer and violinist Antonín Kammel, who worked in Britain from 1765 until his death in 1784, aged just 54.
Gainsborough was a music lover who played the viola da gamba, the precursor of the cello, and is likely to have attended concerts that Kammel gave in 1768 and 1769 in Bath, his home then. He and Kammel moved in the same social circle, with a mutual friend in George Pitt, one of Gainsborough’s distinguished sitters.
Belsey said: “Gainsborough had a great deal of interest in musicians and likened a picture to a piece of music, once writing: ‘One part of a Picture ought to be like the first part of a Tune; that you can guess what follows, and that makes the second part of the Tune, and so I’ve done.’”
He observed that the sitter in the new portrait is shown in a thoughtful pose, as if “looking for inspiration”, just as Gainsborough had done with other portraits of musicians and religious figures.
Andrew Baker, a composer who has researched Kammel for years, said: “The important feature of the portrait is that it shows Kammel as a composer, holding music rather than his violin. This is the composer as he wants us to see him. It’s a romantic image.”
From 1765 Kammel became part of the musical circle of Johann Christian Bach, son of Johann Sebastian Bach and the leading musician in London after the death of Handel in 1759.
Observing that Kammel regularly performed in London and in the provinces with Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel, a close friend of Gainsborough, Baker said: “Though JC Bach’s music is rarely heard, he is familiar from Gainsborough’s portrait, as are Abel and the oboist and composer Johann Fischer, later Gainsborough’s son-in-law, who also regularly performed with Kammel. Considering the musical circle he moved in, with its Gainsborough connections, it is surprising that no portrait of Kammel has been identified.”
He added: “He’s a composer who was well known in his day, but he’s largely forgotten today because there isn’t a picture, whereas all his friends are well known from Gainsborough pictures. This portrait really is exciting. By pure chance, there’s a CD of Kammel’s chamber pieces coming out later this year. There’s starting to be an interest in him.”
Simon Gillespie, a painting conservator, removed layers of dirt and discoloured varnish from the picture. He said: “Much of the artist’s original paint layer was covered by later overpaint, which tellingly went over the drying cracks of the original paint. A past amateur restorer had harshly cleaned the portrait, causing abrasions which he had then disguised by adding paint and glazes.”
He added: “The artist’s original colours are now revealed, and the portrait has regained the three- dimensionality and sense of spontaneity that the artist intended.”