In Pursuit of a Pembrokeshire Renoir: Fake or Fortune
Produced and Directed by Nicky Illis; All3Media/ BBC
Renoir – Pierre-Auguste rather than Jean or Claude – occupies a special place in Wales. His fellow Impressionist, and his senior by two years, Sisley may have been the one to have married in Cardiff Town Hall and the one to have painted nineteen pictures of Penarth and Langland Bay. But Renoir’s “Blue Lady” in the National Museum, at its time one of the most expensive purchases made by the Davies Sisters, has become, a century on, the most popularly loved in the Bequest. It is fitting that an assumed Renoir might help boost funds for the Trustees of Pembrokeshire’s Picton Castle. But the small “Bassin d’Argenteuil” lacks that vital element for auction success, a corroborating signature; thus the inquisitorial attention of the team from Fake or Fortune.
Picton has the most beguiling of Pembrokeshire gardens and an opening shot has a car driving through its grounds under a blue Spring sky. Trustee Nicky Philipps is scion of the family and herself a portraitist of distinction. Library film shows the unveiling of her portrait of Simon Weston in London’s National Portrait Gallery. She provides the family story, related by Great Aunt Gwen, that Lord Milford had visited Monet’s studio and agreed to buy the picture that had been given by Renoir to Monet. The two artists had worked together, often painting the same scene side by side.
It is a sketch done in plein air in a single sitting but if a proven Renoir, estimates Philip Mould, its value would be two to three hundred thousand pounds. “That would help hugely,” says Philipps.
But there is a problem, the film’s raison d’etre. Two French houses of venerability and authority are in disagreement as to whether it is a Renoir. The auction houses in turn, in the view of the film-makers, are all in favour of one of the lordly authorities, incidentally not an academic institution but a market-maker itself. Without the Parisian thumbs-up “Bassin d’Argenteuil” is just a pleasing scene in pretty colours.
The film has a generous travel budget and needs it. The picture travels to London, Paris and Berlin. But the starting point is the unmediated eye of the connoisseur. Philip Mould scrutinises it with the aid of light from a small torch. “Everything about it feels right,” he says; “the more I spend time with it the more I feel comfortable I am.” A particular short stab of yellow is a Renoir signature brush stroke. But a more rigorous observer is the infra-red eye applied by science, courtesy of the Courtauld Institute. That reveals letters and a stamp beneath the mast of the painting’s boat. The Courtauld’s database identifies the name and address as that of Renoir’s supplier of canvas at the time.
Mould’s associate Bendor Grosvenor pursues the historical trail, the line that takes the painting from France to Pembrokeshire. A 1937 sale from Blanche Monet to a dealer of reputation is confirmed and a laboriously uncovered hand-written ledger declares an eighty-five thousand old French franc purchase and an onward sale shortly after to Sir Lawrence of Picton Castle for twelve hundred and fifty pounds.
Simultaneously Mould and Phillips travel the Seine by boat to Argenteuil. A fascinating comparison is made between the brush strokes in a Monet and Renoir. Renoir has stated that he was not in the habit of signing sketches. A visit to Giverny inside and out is made, the place dripping with colour equally from pigment and garden. The researchers encounter a blip in the issue of Monet’s inventory, one lost in wartime, one incomplete. But in Berlin a state-of-the-art scanner does a paint analysis that corresponds with Renoir’s own hand-written list of pigments. Mould is vindicated in the scanner’s finding of a chrome yellow that Renoir is known to have abandoned at the end of the 1870s
So the evidence is cumulatively strong. The picture is resubmitted with the new research for a re-attribution. It is rejected on the grounds of no signature, no documentation and that the painting is “weak and does not fit with Renoir’s style.” The film-makers clearly hold the decision in small regard and muse that it has little to do with scholarship. The programme probably confirms the opinions of those viewers without connection to the art market. Strip away the secrecy and poshness and it is market before art. Interestingly, at a midway point, the researchers feel bound to inform Phillips that the very fact of attention from a public broadcaster television film may be damaging to the prospects for the picture. So at the end the Trustee-owners still declare it to be a Renoir. Pembrokeshire gets to keep a painting by a master but Picton Castle does not earn itself a new roof. Which is a better result from the public perspective may be argued either way.
Aside from the market the film blends a lot of fascinating art history. It suffers at times from a laboured script. The presenters have to repeat and summarise things that have gone before. “Surely the way to go forward,” runs a line in the script, “is to take a really good look at the picture itself.” Well, yes. Perhaps the makers were obliged to build in repetition and redundancy at the behest of the Channel; if so, a little more confidence in the audience, please.