Investigations cast doubt on the origin of the Haddo Madonna


15 August 2019
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Specialist advisors supporting National Trust for Scotland have cast doubt on claims that a painting held in its collections at Haddo House, Aberdeenshire, can be attributed to Renaissance Master Raphael.

Specialist advisors supporting National Trust for Scotland have cast doubt on claims that a painting held in its collections at Haddo House, Aberdeenshire, can be attributed to Renaissance Master Raphael.

It had been suggested that the ‘Haddo Madonna’, so-called as it is part of the collection of the Trust’s Haddo House, near Ellon in Aberdeenshire, might be the work of the Italian Renaissance Master Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520), better known as Raphael. The proposal was made by Dr. Bendor Grosvenor, presenter of the BBC’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, in a programme broadcast in 2016.

Dr. Grosvenor’s theory resulted in worldwide attention and, in the aftermath, the Trust’s Head of Head of Curatorial & Conservation Services, Jennifer Melville, and her colleagues arranged for the painting to be taken to the National Gallery in London for examination. 

Testing the theory

This followed tests that the producers had previously commissioned for the TV programme which included examination of the paints used and the wooden panel on which they were applied (which would have been used at the time, rather than canvas).

In London, in an attempt to verify if Dr. Grosvenor’s theory was correct, in-depth examination of the ‘under drawing’ and composition was carried out and compared against known Raphael works.

The National Gallery’s conclusion is that the painting, although very fine, is not likely to be by the hand of Raphael, but may instead be an 18th century Italian work by an unknown artist.

Other conservators and expert art historians think that the Haddo Madonna might be a 16th century work, but perhaps not actually by Raphael, whereas others suggest that it may be by an artist of the Bolognese School, which was strongly influenced by Raphael.

A new puzzle

Jennifer Melville said: “In trying to prove a theory, we have instead created a puzzle. While I agree the painting is probably not by Raphael, further research is needed – for example, to identify the wax seals that are on the back of the wooden panel and which may indicate a previous owner or be a clever piece of trickery.

“It will be fascinating to research the work’s provenance further, as the history of the picture’s ownership will add to our current understanding of this very fine painting.”

At a talk delivered at Haddo House on 14 August, Jennifer explained her reasons as to why she agrees that Raphael is probably not responsible for the painting: “Raphael’s known Madonnas have a distinctive tactile interaction with the Christ Child, whereas the pose here, where the Madonna is seen to be adoring the Christ Child who, if the panel had not been cut down (or gives the impression of having been cut down) would appear below her to the lower right of the composition.

“The decorative play of hands and arms, which is a distinctive feature of Raphael’s known Madonna and Child compositions and introduced a new tenderness and human element to these religious paintings, is absent here. This is a more formal ‘adoration’, as seen in the art of a slightly earlier generation, by such artists as Bellini, Botticelli and Raphael’s teacher Perugino and this may point us in fascinating directions as to where this painting really came from.”

While the story of the Madonna is neither definitive nor proven, there are more mysteries to be solved and more research needed into how the Gordon family acquired the painting for Haddo House in the early 19th century.

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(images: Newsline Media Ltd for NTS)