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  • Camille Basso

Thomas Gainsborough's work overlooked for 60 years

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

In the art world, an error of judgment can quickly have damaging consequences for artists. This is the situation currently facing the Royal Greenwich Museum, where a work left in storage for 60 years has just been officially attributed to Thomas Gainsborough.

 Pre-treatment photo of an oil painting of Captain Frederick Cornewall, 1706-88, British School, 18th century, circa 1765
Oil painting of Captain Frederick Cornewall, circa 1765, by Thomas Gainsborough

"Too crude to be the work of Gainsborough, despite some similarities", detailed the Royal Greenwich Museum (RMG) in the 1960s. At the time, a portrait of Captain Frederick Cornewall had been donated to the institution by collector Edward Peter Jones. According to Jones, the work was signed by Thomas Gainsborough, an eminent 18th-century British artist. However, the RMG's curator at the time judged the work to be too crude to be authentic, and relegated the portrait to mere storage.


Last year, Hugh Belsey, a specialist in Gainsborough's work, recovered an image of the portrait, when it was held by the renowned British dealer Agnew's. Dating from the 20th century, the image enabled the expert to trace its provenance back to Jones, before hitting a dead end. Then an acquaintance spotted the portrait in an illustrated catalog in the archives of London's National Maritime Museum. Hugh Belsey asked the Royal Museum in Greenwich to appraise the work and bring it out of storage. After further analysis, the specialist confirmed the painting's authenticity, as did the RMG's current curator.


"His request landed on my desk. We took the portrait out of storage. Everything came together quickly: the work had all the visual motifs of Gainsborough's style in this period," Katherine Gazzard, the RMG's current curator, told the Guardian.


In her view, the problem of attributing the painting in the 1960s is an important caveat when it comes to the authentication of works by experts in the field. "But we're more pleased than embarrassed by the news," she said of the discovery. For his part, Hugh Belsey believes that the misjudgment of the portrait is due to Gainsborough's own work. "[At the time,] the artist was evolving at a very rapid pace and the more commissions he did, the more assured his style became and the freer his brushstroke."


Gainsborough's portrait is said to date from 1762, when the painter was working in Bath, England. Following this discovery, the Royal Museum Greenwich has launched a fundraising campaign to restore both the painting and its frame, a job that is expected to cost around £60,000 (approx. €70,000). In 2024, the RMG hopes to exhibit the work in the Queen's House, a privileged section of the institution.

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