Restoration work wipes smile off the face of Dutch vegetable seller

At some point in the last 400 years a painting restorer probably decided the Dutch vegetable seller was far too glum and should be smiling. Now it has been put right and she is once again enigmatic.

English Heritage revealed the results on Friday of a two-year conservation project to reveal the true glory of a mysterious, unsigned painting that has been in its stores for more than 60 years.

The restoration work not only reveals the rogue addition of an upturned smile, but also a jarring strip of dirty sky added to make the canvas square rather than rectangular.

Technical analysis and research also dates it to just before the Dutch Golden Age, much earlier than previously thought, making it highly likely that the painting is linked to the important 16th-century still-life painter Joachim Beuckelaer.

The results of the project were a revelation, said Alice Tate-Harte, English Heritage’s collections conservator. “The smile is such a change. She looks a lot more confronting I think, more serious.”

The painting was acquired for Audley End country house in Essex in the late 18th century and had always been something of a mystery. The amount of work needed to restore it meant there were always bigger conservation priorities. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“The frame was flaking and very dirty,” said Tate-Harte. “The painting had a very yellow varnish on it and dirt layers … there was an awful lot of overpainting on it too, so it wasn’t the beautiful object it could be.”

One of the biggest decisions was to remove a strip of canvas with a poorly painted tower and sky that was added in the 19th century, probably to make the work fit a square frame.

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“It seems quite a crazy thing to do. Why not find a frame that fitted? But this did happen an awful lot in country houses”, said Tate-Harte. “Conservation wasn’t really established back in the 19th century so people had a lot more freedom to do these things.”

The project has revealed the vibrant colours of the painting and the possibility that it could be by Beuckelaer, whose work features in collections including those of the National Gallery and the Prado museum in Madrid.

It looked like a Beuckelaer painting, though thankfully not one of his creepier ones, said Tate-Harte. “In some of his paintings, there’s a group of figures and you get a slightly lecherous man leering and thank goodness we don’t have that.”

The painting has gone on display at Audley End for the first time in 60 years and in the way it was originally conceived for the first time in centuries.

The conservation work was a joy for Tate-Hart and her colleagues. “It has been a great project to work on,” she said. “We’ve really enjoyed it, it has kept us sane during Covid.”

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