Thomas Gainsborough portrait discovered in Royal Museums Greenwich Collection

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Thomas Gainsborough portrait discovered in Royal Museums Greenwich Collection
Recent research into the painting Captain Frederick Cornewall, 1762, by art historian Hugh Belsey and RMG curators has led to the exciting reattribution to Gainsborough. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

GREENWICH.- Royal Museums Greenwich announced the discovery of a portrait by famed eighteenth-century artist Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788).

Recent research into the painting Captain Frederick Cornewall, 1762, by art historian Hugh Belsey and RMG curators has led to the exciting reattribution to Gainsborough.

Gainsborough was a leading artist in the second half of the eighteenth century. He is celebrated for his intimate and characterful portraits produced with lively brushwork. He was a founding member of the Royal Academy and has had a lasting influence in British art.

The three-quarter-length portrait of Captain Frederick Cornewall (1706 – 1788) entered the RMG collection in 1960. It was recorded as a Gainsborough but the curator at the time did not deem it of a high enough quality. It was attributed to an unknown artist and has been in storage for at least three decades.

Historian, Belsey had discovered a photograph of Cornewall's portrait from the early twentieth century when the painting was owned by the London dealers, Agnew’s. He then traced the painting through several sales to the collector, Edward Peter Jones, but here the trail went cold. Unbeknownst to Belsey, Jones had bequeathed the painting to RMG in 1960. It was not until 2022, when Belsey’s friend was looking through the illustrated catalogue of the National Maritime Museum's collection, that Belsey became aware that the painting may be in the RMG collection. Belsey requested to see the portrait in the museum stores in February 2022 and, on inspection of the painting, it became clear from the warm palette and unrivalled draughtsmanship that it was a Gainsborough.

Belsey dated the painting to about 1762 when Gainsborough was working in Bath and it is an impressive example of his work from this period. Cornewall stands against a plain brown background in undress uniform and a bag wig. Gainsborough’s delicate brushwork is especially obvious in the most detailed areas of the picture, such as the lace cuff around Cornewall’s left wrist. Society columns from newspapers of the time show that Cornewall visited Bath in March 1762. The painting was presumably commissioned during this visit. It was perhaps intended to commemorate Cornewall’s retirement from active naval service the previous year. Cornewall had lost his arm during the Battle of Toulon (1744) and Gainsborough highlights the injury, styling Cornewall as a courageous fighter. The sleeve of his coat attached by a small loop to a button on his waistcoat in imitation of the traditional eighteenth-century pose where men were often painted tucking one hand into their waistcoat.

Fundraising has now started to conserve the painting and frame for display. Urgent treatment is needed as the paint layer is loose and there is flaking in some areas. As the painting has not been displayed for some time, there is a layer of dust over the surface of the front and back of the painting, which creates a dull appearance. A layer of conservation grade varnish, which is resistant to yellowing with age, will be applied to re-saturate the pigments. RMG’s crowdfunding campaign will aim to raise £60,000 towards the conservation, which will return the portrait to something closer to Gainsborough’s original intentions in preparation for display at the Queen’s House.

The fundraising page went live on Monday 10 July:

Katherine Gazzard, Curator, said: ‘It is thrilling to be able to rescue this lost masterpiece from obscurity. Those of us lucky enough to see the portrait in the museum stores knew it was something special, but it was only with Hugh’s help that we were able to piece together the full story. We are excited about sharing the painting with the public, but it is currently too fragile for display. The fundraising campaign will enable us to perform the remedial work that the portrait desperately needs. Once the conservation is complete, the painting will hang in the Queen’s House, where our visitors will be able to enjoy this rediscovered masterpiece for themselves.’

Hugh Belsey, Art Historian, said: ‘I have been studying Gainsborough's works for over forty years and during that time I have taken every opportunity to look at as many paintings and drawings as possible. I am delighted that this splendid portrait is now identified as a fine early work by Gainsborough. Gainsborough’s work was developing at a very fast pace in the early 1760s and during the decade and as he attracted more commissions his style became more assured and his brushwork freer.’

Captain Frederick Cornewall (1706-1788)

Captain Frederick Cornewall was born in 1706 in Shropshire.

Cornewall had an active naval career and served in two high profile battles, the Battle of Toulon (1744) and Battle of Minorca (1756). Both received public scrutiny and criticism with some officers being accused of inaction and cowardice.

At the Battle of Toulon, Cornewall was wounded which resulted in the amputation of his right arm. He served on the Marlborough one of the few British ships that engaged with the Franco-Spanish fleet. In the portrait, Cornewall is positioned with his right arm towards the viewer, emphasising his war wound. The composition could be interpreted as Cornewall distinguishing himself as a participant in the main action thereby portraying himself as a dutiful and willing officer, unlike his colleagues who had failed to engage the enemy at Toulon.

At the Battle of Minorca, fought against the French, the British Navy came under scrutiny once more. The battle ended in failure and ultimately led to Minorca being captured by the French. The British public reacted with outrage. Vice-Admiral John Byng, who commanded the fleet, was court-martialled and sentenced to death. Although the court recommended clemency, the public’s appetite for punishment, political divisions and George II’s personal reluctance to grant a royal pardon led to Byng’s execution. Cornewall’s testimony played a key role in his sentencing.

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