Gallery: Millions sliced off Gainsborough masterpiece after owners cut it out - reveals Sudbury-based expert as he stars on BBC Fake or Fortune? show

Mark Bills is pictured at Gainsborough House in Sudbury. A painting has been recently identified as

Mark Bills is pictured at Gainsborough House in Sudbury. A painting has been recently identified as a Gainsborough via a TV show. - Credit: Archant

An 18th Century portrait which languished for years in the backroom of a city museum has been identified as a work by Suffolk’s most famous artist, Thomas Gainsborough.

Joseph Gape by Thomas Gainsborough

Joseph Gape by Thomas Gainsborough - Credit: (c) St Albans Museums; Supplied

But because the portrait of Joseph Gape, former mayor of St Albans, has been cut into an oval shape at some point during the past 300 years, its value will have been sliced from potentially millions of pounds to just tens of thousands, according to experts.

The identity of the artist was uncovered by Gainsborough specialist Hugh Belsey, from Bury St Edmunds, on the BBC programme Fake or Fortune? – which aired on Sunday and was filmed at the artist’s birthplace in Sudbury.

The Gape portrait, painted in 1762, was one of 17,000 oil paintings registered as “artist unknown” on the Your Paintings online record of UK artworks.

The work, loaned to the Museum of St Albans by descendents of Joseph Gape, was one of two “lost” Gainsborough’s identified on the show. Imaginary Landscape, held in London’s Courtauld Institute, was also acknowledged as a drawing by the artist, which had been ‘painted over’ by another following Gainsborough’s death.


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Mr Belsey said because the Gape portrait had been tampered with – possibly in the 18th Century by someone who wanted it to fit in with a gallery of fashionably oval paintings and who was unaware of its future worth – the painting’s value would have been reduced.

Mark Bills, director of Gainsborough’s House museum in Sudbury, agreed, adding: “We have a big collection of Gainsborough’s portraits where he painted a kind of feigned oval frame around the image inside the rectangular frame.

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“This particular work has been cut around that painted line to make it an oval shape, which will have cut the value down considerably.

“Gainsborough’s works can be worth anything from tens of thousands of pounds to multi-millions. This is now likely to be at the lower end of the scale.”

According to Mr Bills, Gainsborough would have found the mystery surrounding the paintings “amusing”. He said: “It was reported in the 18th Century newspapers that he was once in a position where he had to judge whether a painting was fake or real.

“He was called as a witness when someone bought a ‘Nicolas Poussin’ and thought they had been conned by the dealer. Gainsborough cast his painter’s eye over it and concluded that it ‘left him with no emotions’ – he said he wouldn’t give five shillings for it!”

It is still largely down to the experts’ eye to judge whether a painting is genuine or not.

“It’s a responsible job when such big money involved,” Mr Bills added.

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