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Buying Old Paintings
( Originally Published 1913 )
That one can now and then acquire a fine old oilpainting cheaply I know quite well. Such real chances occur, but occur much more seldom than most people with a passion for picking up old oil-paintings suppose ; most of the seeming chances which occur are, believe me, not worth the accepting.
The Three Schools.-Broadly speaking, the old oilpictures which wait for purchasers in the shops of brokers or small dealers or the less exclusive auctionrooms fall into three classes ; they are : I, pictures of the English School; 2, Dutch and Flemish pictures; and 3, Italian pictures. It does not take a zealous amateur long, if he has real taste and eye-intelligence, and has studied the examples in public picture-galleries, to learn to distinguish at sight an old oil-painting as English or Italian or Netherlandish. I will not be so bold as to say which of the three schools is the most desirable to study and to collect, but perhaps I can give some hints which will warn the amateur against rashness and errors in buying old oil-paintings of any school.
Some " Nevers."-Never buy an old picture on the strength of the name or signature which is painted or affixed-the signature in the corner, or the name on the gilt label which is tacked to the lower front limb of the frame. There are scores of small old oil-paintings about with " J. Crome " lettered on the label that old Crome never saw, and that statement is equally true of pictures labelled " Sidney Cooper." Dealers and collectors have a habit of ascribing any likely daubs to a given artist, without proof.
Never buy an oil-painting as old, on the strength of the frame which surrounds it. A great trade is openly done in old picture-frames among dealers; frames and pictures which never met each other till recently are sold as having been married together fifty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty, or two hundred years ago. Not long since a dealer bought an Italian picture, suitable for an altar, for L15; ; bought next an Italian carved wood frame for £30 ; put the two together, and sold them to a lady who wished to present an altar-piece picture to her church, for L150.
Never buy an old picture on the mere strength of its being " on panel " ; there are panels and panels, and quite a store of expert knowledge can be accumulated about the different cut of old panels, the different thicknesses, and the different woods, as I will presently show. And never buy an old picture on the strength of the dirtiness, coarseness, or apparent great age of the back of the canvas ; dirt can be rubbed on and into the canvas, canvas of the ancient degree of coarseness has always continued to be made, and-on the other hand-most old pictures have been re-lined, i.e. backed with canvas which at the date of re-lining was new.
Re-lining.-If a real old picture has been re-lined you will find the traces of that at the edges of the front of the canvas in a slight ridge or line along each of the four edges of the oblong or square. From that ridge or line to quite the edge of the front of the canvas and over the edge to the side of the strainer the canvas is new -or was at the date of re-lining ; I mean that part of the canvas which is nailed to the edge of the strainer, because when the picture was re-lined the real old contemporary canvas had become too rotten or too dilapidated to be nailed down securely again. This new part of the front was then coloured to suit the hue of the old painting, and the whole was usually covered with varnish. Re-lining like this is a perfectly legitimate thing. Most re-lined pictures have a " stretcher bar," viz. a wooden bar across the middle of the back, which is usually absent from very old pictures which have never been re-lined.
Panels.-Panels were longer used for painting on in Italy than in the Netherlands. In the seventeenth century canvas became the rule for large pictures by Dutch and Flemish artists, though panels continued in use for pictures of smaller size. Italian panels were made of poplar, fig-wood, chestnut, walnut, fir, or deal; in the Netherlands the panels were almost invariably of oak. Italian panels, being soft wood, are massive and thick; Netherlandish panels, being oaken, are often thin and light. I notice that fraudulent imitations of " old masters " in a small size are being painted on cardboard, which is backed with thin panels, to deceive ; always take a " panel " picture out of the frame before buying it.