The nearly destitute Delaroche

BY VICTORIA ROMEO

Recently, OMNP came across the fascinating story of a rediscovered masterpiece by Paul Delaroche, thought to have been destroyed during the bombing of London during World War II.  Following our review of film, The Rape of Europa, this story highlights the ongoing effects of the Nazi destruction and looting that took place during World War II.  Delaroche’s masterpiece, thought to be lost, did in fact survive, with the battle scars to prove it.

Painted in 1836, Charles I Insulted, depicts an atypical moment in  English history, in which the king suffered from his defeat in 1649, taunted by his captors  days before his execution. This was no ordinary time in England’s empire, as the country had just undergone a civil war.  Through unilateral decisions on tax policy and religious reform, the power hungry Charles had long sought to negate Parlimentary authority.

During the 1640′s  his Royalist forces challenged those of the English and Scottish Parlimentarians,  before his ultimate  defeat in 1649,  coming at the hands of  the sterling English commander, Oliver Cromwell.  Delaroche, a French artist, is thought to have drawn parallels between this historical English scene and the tumultuous state of contemporary France.  As an acclaimed history painter, he frequently depicted gruesome and dramatic scenes, finding ample subject matter in British history.

Such harrowing subject matter of this painting is matched by an equally gripping story of this work’s survival.  Delaroche’s work hung among an exceptional collection of masterpieces by such artists as Titian, Rembrandt and Raphael at the Bridgewater House in London.  The collection had been assembled in the 18th century and passed down through inheritance to the Duke of Sutherland.

Yet during World War II, such a prestigious location was not exempt from the relentless air raids of the Nazi Lutwaffe, that rained down on London during 1940-41. Their relentless bombings prompted officials at many museums and private art collections in London to evacuate their treasures and hide them until after the war.  Unfortunately, with the Duke of Sutherland detained in a prisoner of war camp in France, Bridgewater House’s collection remained unprotected from the Blitz.  Amazingly, the mansion escaped any direct hits until the final night of air raids, on May 11, 1941.

This time, explosives hit directly, causing colossal damage to the house and many of its works of art.   Charles I Insulted sustained shrapnel damage and suffered no less than 200 tears in the vast 13 by 10 foot canvas.

Afterwards, paper patches were applied to the heavily damaged areas and the canvas was rolled up and stored in Bridgewater House until 1945, when all of the works were taken to the Sutherland family home, at the Mertoun House in Scotland.  The best works in the collection were donated the National Gallery of Scotland, while the damaged Delaroche remained forgotten until June of 2009 when it was uncovered, still rolled up and bandaged in the attic of Mertoun House.

The rediscovery was courtesy of the curators at the National Gallery of London, who were preparing for an exhibition of Delaroche’s art.  Despite indications that “Charles I, Insulted” was lost (mentions of the work in the intervening years listed it as “heavily damaged” or “destroyed”), a staff investigation prompted Michael Clark, director of the National Gallery, to personally visit Mertoun House, where he uncovered the still-rolled and bandaged work in the attic.

Interestingly enough, another one of Delaroche’s works, the famed Execution of Lady Jane Grey, had also been thought to have been lost for years before it was rediscovered, this time in a basement storeroom at the Tate Gallery.  Delaroche’s art did not enjoy much popularity with art critics and as a result, his works were often sidelined in museum collections.  Knowing the history of Lady Jane, curators at the National Gallery correctly suspected a similar fate for Charles I Insulted.

Recently, the damaged painting has undergone restoration in preparation for its current exhibition, Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey on view at the National Gallery through May 23rd.  However, conservationists could not completely repair the work in the short months since its rediscovery.  While the picture reads clearly, the damage is still quite visible.  There is some debate over whether the work should receive a more thorough restoration. Yet perhaps the tears and holes in the work deserve to remain. Combined with the subject matter of the surviving canvas, they illustrate two tragic accounts of war-that of Charles I’s political woes, and the devastation of the great war of our time, which damaged this piece and destroyed an innumerable amount of others.

FURTHER:

“Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey,” on view until 23 May 2010  [UK National Gallery]

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