The Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) has announced that a portrait sitting in storage for over sixty years has now been attributed to the great eighteenth-century British portraitist Thomas Gainsborough. The painting is an unsigned portrait of a one-armed man in a naval uniform. It was bequeathed to the National Maritime Museum in 1960 as a portrait by Gainsborough. However, curators were skeptical of this attribution at the time, saying it was “too coarse” to be a true Gainsborough.
However, last year, Gainsborough expert Hugh Belsey asked to examine the work. He was researching the provenance of a lost masterwork, Portrait of Captain Frederick Cornewall, and could not find out where the painting went after 1960. By a stroke of luck, Belsey saw the work’s image in a catalogue of the National Maritime Museum’s collection, not as a Gainsborough but attributed to an unknown artist. He requested to see the work, and shortly thereafter positively identified it as an original Gainsborough, created around 1762 when the painter worked in Bath. Cornewall was a British naval officer who, when he had his portrait painted by Gainsborough, had just recently retired. His jacket’s empty right sleeve is pinned to a button on his waistcoat, a fashion some might be familiar with through much later depictions of Horatio Nelson. Cornewall had lost his arm in 1744 at the Battle of Toulon during the War of Austrian Succession.
The portrait is in good condition but “very fragile”. The varnish applied to the canvas, which has since yellowed with age, must be removed to show the portrait’s true colors. This is a delicate process that is complicated by the possibility of paint flaking off the canvas. The RMG, which now operates the National Maritime Museum, is trying to raise £60,000 towards its restoration to be exhibited at Queen’s House. The portrait is now only one of two paintings by Gainsborough in the RMG collections, the other being his Portrait of John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich.