New Work by Pieter Brueghel the Younger Discovered at the Holburne Museum
The plot of Michael Frayn’s 1999 novel Headlong revolves around the rediscovery of a long-lost painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Fiction became happy reality at the Holburne Museum with the revelation that a scene depicting a peasant wedding dance that had been languishing in the museum stores as a work by a ‘follower of Brueghel’ was in fact a gem of a painting by Bruegel’s eldest son Pieter Brueghel the Younger.
The reattribution has been made following a year of painstaking conservation, which has seen layers of discoloured varnish removed and the painting carefully restored to its former glory. Full of lively touches, including the bride counting her money and wedding guests dancing, drinking and embracing, the painting is now ready for redisplay as the centrepiece of the exhibition ‘Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty’ that will open at the Holburne Museum next spring. During the conservation process the seventeenth-century panel was photographed using infrared reflectography, revealing a masterful drawing hidden below the painted surface. It was this underdrawing that convinced experts of the painting’s authenticity: its quality and detail is absolutely typical of paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, who mapped out his compositions carefully on primed oak panels before beginning to apply any paint.
Unlike in Frayn’s novel, where the Bruegel meets with a sticky end, the Wedding Dance in the Open Air takes its place alongside the two other paintings by Brueghel the Younger that were acquired by William Holburne in the nineteenth century. These are a proverb roundel known as Robbing the Bird’s Nest and a homely interior showing a Visit to a Farmhouse. Together the trio of paintings make the Holburne Museum the largest collection of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s work in the UK. All three demonstrate a characteristically intimate scale, energetic characterisation and beautiful use of colour. But don’t just take our word for it, come along to the museum in February and find out for yourself, or enjoy Robbing the Bird’s Nest and Visit to a Farmhouse as part of the Museum’s permanent display now.
Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty will be at the Holburne Museum from 11 February – 4 June 2017
You can listen to the Holburne Museum’s Director, Jennifer Scott, in conversation with Headlong author Michael Frayn on Radio 4’s Today Programme