Petworth portrait confirmed as Titian in BBC Four’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces

Press release
BBC Four's Britain's Lost Masterpieces at Petworth House
Published : 30 Aug 2018

A 16th century portrait of a young cardinal, at the National Trust’s Petworth House in Sussex, has been attributed to the Italian artist Titian following research and restoration for BBC Four’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces.

Presented by art historian Dr Bendor Grosvenor and social historian Emma Dabiri, BBC Arts’ Britain’s Lost Masterpieces seeks to uncover hidden treasures among painting collections using a combination of restoration, research and scientific analysis. 

In the Petworth episode, shown last night, Bendor Grosvenor investigated whether the portrait of an unknown young cardinal, originally acquired as a Titian, had been wrongly downgraded in the 20th century and was in fact by the Old Master himself.  

As a young artist, Titian (1488-1576) became famous as a portrait painter. The half-length portrait at Petworth shows a young cardinal, wearing a scarlet cape and hat, shown against a dark background. His left hand rests on a book on a ledge. 

The painting was first acquired as a Titian by the 3rd Earl of Egremont at Petworth, an illustrious collector of art and patron of JMW Turner, and was first recorded in the Petworth collection around the 1820s.

In later years, however, it was questioned whether the painting was really by Titian’s hand. The composition and use of colour is similar to other Titian portraits of the mid-16th Century But it was felt that the areas of the portrait lacked the quality and psychological insight found in the master’s work. In the early 20th Century the portrait was reattributed as being ‘in the manner of’ Titian, and thereafter never featured in any Titian scholarship. 

In Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, Bendor Grosvenor argued against this attribution, noting in particular the quality and detail of the face in the portrait, with the characteristic sparkle and personality that Titian brought to his subjects.  However, the lower part of the portrait had been badly restored in later years, with clumsy additions such as a ledge on which the cardinal rests his hand, which made it very difficult to see the original work underneath.

Using x-ray and infrared techniques, and following specialist cleaning by Britain’s Lost Masterpieces’ restorer, Simon Gillespie, to remove layers of later overpaint and varnish, the restored portrait was shown to leading Titian expert, Professor Peter Humfrey. He concluded that the face in particular was too good to be by an artist following Titian’s style and was confident the painting could now be described as ‘attributed to Titian’.  The portrait can now be dated to about 1550.

It is hoped that further research will uncover more of the painting’s early history, and exactly how it got to Petworth. The most important missing piece of the puzzle which remains, however, is the identity of the sitter as there is no documentary evidence to identify the young Cardinal. One candidate suggested in the programme is Giulio Feltrio della Rovere (1533-1578), the son of Titian’s major patron, Francisco Maria I della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, who was made a Cardinal in 1547 at the age of 14. 

Dr. Bendor Grosvenor said: “It has been a great privilege to work with the National Trust in helping to rehabilitate this long over-looked work by Titian, one of my favourite artists. We joked at the beginning of filming that this was going to be ‘Titian impossible’. But with a little luck and a great deal of diligent conservation from Simon Gillespie, we have managed to bring this important painting back to life, so that it can be admired once again in pride of place at Petworth.”

Andrew Loukes, House and Collections Manager at Petworth House, said: “It has been thrilling to follow the research and analysis that has been carried out for the programme, and especially because it confirms the 3rd Earl of Egremont’s connoisseurship. He thought he was buying a Titian and he was right.

“Through Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, we have had this chance to bring one of our historic pictures back to life, although intriguingly we may never know the identity of the young cardinal who is depicted. The portrait is back on display in the Marble Hall, exactly where it was first displayed with such pride when it first entered the collection in the 1820s and we welcome visitors to come and see it with fresh eyes.”

Petworth House has one of the finest collections of art and sculpture in the care of the National Trust. The painting joins two other Titians in the collection, alongside works by Van Dyck, Turner, Gainsborough and Reynolds. 

The Britain’s Lost Masterpieces series is produced by Tern Television, Belfast. Watch the Petworth episode on catch up on BBC iplayer here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bgnwy3