Sleuths on the Loose

History and Mystery is not your typical NCMA exhibition. It might strike you as half-finished or unresolved. But on the other hand, don’t we all enjoy a good mystery?

A glimpse at some of the Scott family portraits under treatment in the NCMA’s conservation lab

Conservator Perry Hurt discusses the Scott portraits with UNC—CH graduate students and professor Tatiana String, far left, in 2012.In your average whodunit we are presented with some known or familiar situation that reveals itself to be quite the opposite. We face a puzzle. We look for clues, chase a red herring or two, and wait for the next twist as we follow a developing plot.

The Scott Project to research the NCMA’s early British portraits has been all about mystery. After nearly six years of research, you might say we’ve found a lot of smoke, but not yet the gun. If anything the History and Mystery exhibition illustrates the difficulty of finding the final word in art history. We invite others to see the challenges that we’ve faced in our research and to ponder these enigmatic works with us.

The Scott Project set out with one simple goal: take advantage of a new wave of scholarship on early modern British art, such as the National Portrait Gallery of London’s groundbreaking Making Art in Tudor Britain research project and find out as much as possible about our nine early British paintings. Our work has involved more than 30 people in North Carolina, around the U.S., the U.K., and even Italy. History has been rewritten for nearly every painting–with revelations, confirmations, and surprises.

Paul van Somer, Christian, Lady Cavendish, Later Countess of Devonshire (1598—1675), and Her Daughter, 1619, oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 41 1/2 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Luther Hartwell HodgesOur sleuthing has taken us down some surprising paths. Full conservation treatments of some of the paintings have incorporated new technology and helped us see the paintings closer to their original appearance. The exhibition includes several paintings that haven’t been conserved yet, or are in the middle of conservation treatment. These paintings plainly show their history with faded colors, cracking paint, discolored varnish, and degraded past restoration. Lady Cavendish by Paul van Somer is displayed mid-treatment, with most of the past restoration stripped away, revealing much old damage and numerous alterations.

The exhibition is also about the many other great British works in our permanent collection, several of which haven’t been on view for a long time, or ever! A few have undergone transformative restorations in recent years, including the portraits of Oldfield Bowles, attributed to Nathaniel Dance; Lady Mary Villiers, Later Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, by Anthony van Dyck; and Barbara Villiers, Later Duchess of Cleveland, studio of Sir Peter Lely.

During the exhibition we’ll have lectures and discussions that touch on the vast number of subjects that intersect in History and Mystery: politics, religion, colonization, Elizabeth I, James I, Shakespeare, fashion, costumes, hairstyles, witches, beer, farthingales . . . The Museum docents have special public tours that are available by reservation and also following some scheduled programming.

Art history research projects often culminate in an exhibition that’s a celebratory finale, offering concrete conclusions and a lasting statement on the subject at hand. History and Mystery is not a finale; it’s more of a midterm evaluation for the Scott Project. In our whodunit, we’ve placed a bookmark at the middle–right where the plot thickens! So we invite you and the scholars of the world to see our findings and possibly add to our detective work. There are more chapters yet to be written.

The free exhibition History and Mystery: Discoveries in the NCMA British Collection is on view in West Building from August 6, 2016, through June 25, 2017.

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