Skip to content

The Rembrandt self-portrait at Buckland Abbey

Visitors admire the Rembrandt self-portrait at Buckland Abbey, Devon
Visitors admire the Rembrandt self-portrait at Buckland Abbey | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

More than 350 years after Rembrandt's death, an oil painting at Buckland Abbey was scientifically verified as a genuine 17th-century ‘selfie’. It’s now on display in the Georgian Dining Room.

The Rembrandt self-portrait mystery

Buckland Abbey is home to a painting called Self-Portrait Wearing a White Feathered Bonnet, dated 1635. It was believed to be ‘school of Rembrandt’, meaning it was painted by one of his students or followers.

However, in 2013, the world’s leading Rembrandt expert, Ernst van de Wetering, suggested that the piece could've been painted by the Dutch artist himself. As a result, the artwork was sent for scientific analysis.

Although I was pretty certain the painting was a Rembrandt, I wanted to further examine it after cleaning and see the results from the technical analysis, as this had never been done before.

A quote by Ernst van de Wetering World's leading Rembrandt expert
Rembrandt's self-portrait on display at Buckland Abbey, Devon
Rembrandt's self-portrait is on display in the dining room | © National Trust Images / John Millar

The Rembrandt painting investigation

Authenticating paintings like the self-portrait at Buckland is no easy task, and relies on three aspects:

  • A curator’s knowledge of the artist’s work and painting style
  • Any surviving documents and evidence that reveals the art’s history and previous owners
  • The results of analytical investigations that show the materials and techniques used

Buckland Abbey’s self-portrait was sent to the Hamilton Kerr Institute (HKI) in Cambridgeshire. Here, it underwent eight months of painstaking investigation, where even the signature was analysed.

Here are six of the steps it took to confirm that the painting was a genuine Rembrandt:

Visual analysis
The painting was removed from its frame, enabling conservation experts to examine it and look for clues, for example in the type of wood and direction of brushstrokes.
X-rays of paintings can reveal aspects that aren’t visible to the naked eye. Thicker areas of paint may block x-rays, and the density of certain pigments, particularly lead white, can absorb the radiation. The x-ray showed a possible outline of a lace cuff on the Buckland Abbey painting, suggesting that the artist had sketched an arm across the chest before reconsidering.
Infrared reflectography
Infrared rays penetrate most paint layers, but not those containing carbon-based pigments, such as charcoal, graphite and black inks. So, infrared reflectography can sometimes reveal any initial sketches the artist made before painting. Experts spotted a ‘reserve’, or lighter area, around the subject's hat, suggesting that the artist had originally planned to draw a much larger hat.
Raking light
Experts shined a light across the painting at an oblique angle to highlight its surface characteristics, such as raised or lifted paint. The light revealed the ‘tooling’ marks the artist had made on the reverse of the panel while preparing it for painting.
Paint microscopy (or pigment analysis)
Minute paint samples were taken from the painting and examined under a microscope. This process helps to show the different layers and pigments – paint added later is often separated by a thin layer of dirt or varnish. In this case, experts compared the samples to other known Rembrandt paintings.
Cleaning the painting
The painting from Buckland was cleaned, and all past restorations were removed, which revealed the fine details, brushstrokes and colours. This enabled experts to more clearly compare this painting to other known Rembrandts.
Detail, Self-portrait, wearing a Feathered Bonnet by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69), Buckland Abbey, Devon.
The self-portrait underwent close analysis before experts came to their conclusion | © National Trust Images/Hamilton Kerr Institute

The Rembrandt investigation results

Christine Slottvedd Kimbriel, HKI paintings conservator, said, ‘Careful cleaning and removal of several layers of aged and yellowed varnish revealed the original colours and painting style beneath, which was much more detailed and gave a three-dimensional appearance to the fabric in Rembrandt’s cloak.’

David Taylor, Paintings and Sculpture Curator for the National Trust at the time, commented, ‘The key element for me has been the cleaning. The varnish was so yellow that it was difficult to see how beautifully the portrait had been painted.

'Now you can really see all the flesh tones and other colours, as well as the way in which the paint has been handled – it's now much easier to appreciate it as a Rembrandt.’

Funding the Rembrandt investigation

The investigation was funded by the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, which dedicated £100,000 to the project. This covered the analysis and the much-needed conservation of the painting, as well as helping to create an exhibition at Buckland Abbey.

Where to find the Rembrandt painting

Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait Wearing a White Feathered Bonnet can now be found in the Georgian dining room at Buckland Abbey.

Two visitors looking at bowls from the collection at Buckland Abbey

Buckland Abbey's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Buckland Abbey on the National Trust Collections website.

You might also be interested in

Landscape mural of Italian seaport showing a harbour scene in the dining room by Rex Whistler at Plas Newydd House & Gardens, Anglesey

Art and collections 

The art and heritage collections we care for rival the world’s greatest museums. Learn more about the collection of paintings, decorative art, costume, books, household and other objects at historic places.

Painting on display in the Upper Gallery at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire

Introducing our remarkable collections 

See the breadth of our collection of works of art, furniture and more: we care for around a million objects at over 200 historic places, there’s a surprise discovery around every corner.

Man and woman looking at large historic globe in gallery lined with Greco-Roman statues

Celebrating 125 treasures in our collections 

Discover the stories behind some of the greatest artworks and artefacts looked after by the National Trust, as told in a dedicated book, 125 Treasures from the Collections of the National Trust.

Young visitors playing board games at Buckland Abbey, Devon

The history of Buckland Abbey 

Discover a wealth of history at Buckland Abbey, from its time as a medieval farming monastery to the famous Tudor explorers who called it home.

A panoramic view of Buckland Abbey seen from the north. The Great Barn stands out prominently to the left.

Visiting Buckland Abbey and Great Barn 

Explore the abbey which is part museum, part house, and filled with treasures. Step inside the medieval Great Barn: a tithe barn unchanged since it was built centuries ago.

A view of green fields with a river valley in the distance. Tree branches with spring leaves frame the image.

Buckland Abbey's estate 

Discover Buckland's ancient woodland on one of three colour coded walking routes. With abundant wildlife and far reaching views, it's a peaceful and fascinating place to enjoy a stroll.

Two visitors sit at a table in the cafe with cups of tea and cakes

Eating and shopping at Buckland Abbey 

Take a break at the Ox Yard Café, which serves tea, coffee, light lunches and sweet treats, before finding a special gift or souvenir in the National Trust shop, art galleries and second-hand bookshop.

Roses in the Elizabethan Garden at Buckland Abbey

Buckland Abbey's gardens 

From beautiful blooms to bountiful harvests, the gardens at Buckland Abbey are full of colour and seasonal interest. Soak up the history of this special place as you admire the planting, or simply enjoy the peace and tranquillity as you sit a while on one of the benches.