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A Misattribution

For more than 100 years, the drawings were thought to be the work of a later artist, the animal painter Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–73). Queen Victoria was a keen admirer of Landseer’s work, and owned many paintings and drawings by him.

After Landseer’s death in 1873, the Queen’s officials wrote to the executors of his estate, hoping to buy further drawings from his studio. Two albums were sent to Buckingham Palace for the Queen to examine. On 7 April 1874, the Keeper of the Privy Purse, Sir Thomas Biddulph, wrote ‘there was one with some landscapes in it, that the Queen liked’. In the belief that the drawings were works by Landseer himself, the sheets were mounted in a new album by J. Bignell of Piccadilly, lettered on the front: ‘Sketches by Sir E. Landseer’.

The drawings remained in that album throughout the twentieth century. In the early 1990s, a campaign of cataloguing led to the album’s reassessment. The paper was examined by expert Peter Bower, and one sheet was found to have a watermark of 1748, suggesting that the drawings were much earlier than had been thought. Watermarks are symbols, dates and other marks belonging to the paper mill that are part of the wire moulds.

The evidence of watermarks has to be treated with caution: dated wire moulds were sometimes used, unchanged, to make paper for years or even decades. In this instance, however, the date had been altered, a small curl of wire changing the date from 1742 to 1748, suggesting a relatively scrupulous approach to the dating of the papermill’s moulds.

Even so, the watermark does not necessarily date the drawing. In some cases artists drew on paper that had been in their possession for years, or even deliberately obtained paper of an earlier date.

Further evidence lay in the drawings’ style. With this indication of an earlier date, strong similarities could now be recognised with other known drawings by the young Gainsborough.

Despite this strong circumstantial evidence, a firm connection to Gainsborough could not yet be established. Delia Millar’s catalogue of Victorian Drawings and Watercolours in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen (1994, p. 530) dismissed the earlier attribution to Landseer, but described the drawings merely as ‘circle of Thomas Gainsborough or the Norwich school’. But the connection to two known Gainsborough paintings now allows all 25 drawings to be reattributed with certainty. They can now be celebrated as a new and exciting group of drawings by the young artist.