Fake or Fortune? – 18 August 2021 – 18/8/2021 – Wednesday – BBC

A King’s Last Supper
Series 9 Episode 4 of 4

The team head to the beautiful island of Anglesey at the northernmost tip of Wales, where Huw Lewis has a sheep farm. Huw frequently spends his evenings scouring the internet for art bargains and was trawling through eBay when he came across a small, unattributed oil sketch of Jesus and the apostles at the Last Supper. He immediately sensed it was something special and was amazed when nobody bid against him. He secured it for just £50. He later learned that it had been in the seller’s family for decades, and they had assumed it to be practically worthless.

After doing some online research of his own, Huw thought he might have identified the artist as Benjamin West. Born in Pennsylvania, West left America in his twenties and settled in Britain, where he quickly found fame and fortune. By the late eighteenth century, he was one of the most celebrated artists of the day, renowned for the bold storytelling of his history paintings. Perhaps his biggest fan was King George III, who made West his official history painter. Together they aimed to bring about a magnificent new era in British art.

Huw’s picture is an unusual one, as it is a small canvas that appears to be semi-finished. It’s partly painted in oils, but also visible are bold, black lines delineating the figures. After examining the picture closely, Philip is intrigued by it but is also worried by its condition. It appears to have been scrubbed in places, and layers of dirt have built up over the years. There’s also no signature, which, given West was very good at promoting himself and his work, is concerning. But Fiona discovers that Benjamin West was commissioned by King George III to paint two paintings of the Last Supper for chapels at Windsor Castle, and at the Royal Academy of Arts she discovers that one of the preparatory sketches for those paintings hasn’t been seen for a century. Could it be that Huw’s internet bargain is the missing West sketch?

Forensic science will be key, as a genuine eighteenth-century picture could reveal some more unusual ingredients, and West was known to experiment with paints. At her laboratory in the Courtauld Institute of Art, Professor Aviva Burnstock examines the picture and reveals some surprising details that the naked eye would never see.

But this proves to be one of the team’s most difficult investigations. As well as the worrying condition of the picture, they face a provenance trail that should stretch back more than two hundred years. There’s also the added challenge of doing research in the midst of lockdown. With the odds so stacked against them, can they prove that Huw’s internet bargain is actually a long-lost work fit for a king?

About Fake or Fortune?

Journalist Fiona Bruce teams up with art expert Philip Mould to investigate mysteries behind paintings.

This show is broadcast on BBC Four, also known as the British Broadcasting Corporation.

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