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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 finally revealed to have been created by the Old Master. Following years of doubt, the self-portrait was sent away to be investigated by a team of experts. They scientifically verified that the 17th-century ‘selfie’ was genuine, and it’s now on display in the Georgian dining room at Buckland Abbey.

The Rembrandt self-portrait mystery

Buckland Abbey is home to a painting called Self-Portrait Wearing a White Feathered Bonnet, dated 1635. Until recently, 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.

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