LONDON (Reuters Life!) - A major work by French painter Paul Delaroche thought to have been virtually destroyed during a World War Two German air raid on London in 1941 has been unrolled and found to be in good condition.
“Charles I Insulted by Cromwell’s Soldiers,” depicting the British monarch shortly before his execution in 1649, was damaged when Bridgewater House was bombed on May 11, 1941.
The canvas, hanging in the dining room at the time, was taken down, rolled up and moved to a country house in Scotland where it has remained unseen for nearly 70 years.
Representatives of the National Gallery in London and the National Gallery of Scotland approached the Duke of Sutherland and asked if they could inspect the work ahead of an exhibition on Delaroche to be held in London from February 24-May 23 next year.
They discovered around 200 tears caused by shrapnel but, contrary to expectations, the painting was “almost entirely legible and has lost none of its emotive intensity.”
The 1837 work will feature alongside other Delaroche paintings including “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey,” itself damaged in a 1928 flood in London and presumed ruined but which was also rediscovered, in 1973, in virtually perfect condition.
National Gallery director Nicholas Penny said the show aimed to restore the reputation of a painter who, in the 20th century, has often been dismissed as overly theatrical and sentimental.
“This is the first exhibition of his work on this sort of scale that there’s ever been in this country, and he’s a painter who needs to be reassessed for all sorts of reasons,” he said.
The newly discovered work was not on display at a press briefing, but photographs were shown of the moment when the canvas, measuring 3.92 by 2.84 meters, was unrolled for the first time.
Its portrayal of Charles I being mocked as he prepares for his death borrows from sources as diverse as 17th century Dutch tavern scenes and religious images of Christ being abused before his crucifixion.
The shrapnel damage will be clearly visible to visitors, as long term plans for its restoration have yet to be decided. One factor is where such a large work can hang.
The Charles I painting will be on show in the National Gallery’s main building which is free of charge in the hope that people who see it will go on to pay to see the exhibition in the adjacent Sainsbury Wing.
“Many people dislike Delaroche,” Penny said, addressing the painter’s mixed legacy. “When ‘Lady Jane Grey’ was put back on display it was put back reluctantly — people didn’t believe it was a great work of art at all.”
He said critical reaction to Delaroche was tainted by his paintings’ huge public appeal, particularly the image of a blindfolded Lady Jane kneeling before her execution block and that of the two princes in the Tower of London.
They also suffered from overfamiliarity and the perception that their theatricality somehow cheapened them, Penny added.
He said that during his life, Delaroche was one of Europe’s most famous painters, and although he was French many of his works dealt with dramatic passages from British history.
“The events of the French Revolution are, in a sense, the unwritten (story) behind some of these paintings, particularly those about the British civil war of which this (“Strafford on his Way to Execution”) is one of the most powerful examples.”
Editing by Paul Casciato