Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Art Detective

I didn't fool around with getting this book. One copy was entering our library system and I put a hold on it before the library even got it. It came in to their branch and went right back out to me. You know (if you read this blog) that art forgery is of huge interest to me. I wasn't exactly sure if The Art Detective was about forgeries or not but it sparked my interest.

The author, Philip Mould, is an art gallery owner and part of the Antiques Roadshow broadcast in England who has specialized in portrait paintings. Each of the six chapters of his book details the story of some interesting find he has come across during his career: Chapter 1 tells the story of a pack rat who hoarded portraits in a dilapidated church in rural Vermont; the second chapter talks about a Gainsborough that had been so overpainted as to be unrecognizable; overpainting plays an important part in a chapter on a Rembrandt and a lesser role when Mould covers a purchase of a Queen Elizabeth I painting. There is a chapter on Norman Rockwell forgeries and then Mould concludes with a tremendous, unfinished at publication, Antiques Roadshow tale involving an unusual Winslow Homer found in a pile of garbage.

Perhaps what amazed me the most is how much overpainting has been done on paintings of noted artists. Overpainting is what it sounds like. Another artist goes and paints over the original painting for various reasons. In the case of the Rembrandt, it was done in order to update the painting to fit the time period in which it was displayed. Sometimes it is done to cover up damaged areas of the painting. Restorers can painstakingly often remove the overpainting and bring the painting more towards its original appearance. One of the fascinating things about the book is the before and after photos of some of the paintings, especially the Rembrandt.

My only complaints about this book are petty. One, I wish the pictures were with the chapters in which they are discussed. There are two sections of photos, each about a third of the way from the ends of the book. I didn't like leaving back and forth or seeing the pictures of future chapters before I read about them. Second, the book is too darn short. Six chapters? I could have read twenty or more. Lastly, as with most non-fiction, I would love a book of references, especially for the chapters on QEI and the Antiques Roadshow where Mould and his assistant conducted a lot of research. What tools does he use?

I really enjoyed Mould's writing. He is very engaging and he realizes that the stories, and not Mould himself, are most important (at least to the reader). Just a thoroughly entertaining and fascinating read. It appears, too, that Mould will be hosting a television show in England called Art Sleuth which will be in much the same vein.

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