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The picture in the attic - and what it reveals

Updated Tuesday 4th September 2007

Don't take a painting at face value - there might be a bigger story held in that frame...

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Art and history have been close companions ever since the first cave painting. Indeed, Art History is an academic subject on its own and the Open University runs a number of courses on it. Historians are interested in art in three basic ways.  First, there is that picture in the attic – what is it and when was it painted? More important perhaps, will it turn out to be a forgotten masterpiece that can be sold for a fabulous sum at auction?

Secondly, pictures (along with other works of art such as sculptures and tapestries) can be important tools in trying to understand and visualise something about the past. If, for example, you are studying Victorian Britain, the pictures of Frith, such as The Railway Station, can tell you a lot about society and its values, fashion and everyday life.

Thirdly, how can we understand and appreciate art? Interpreting a picture is a fascinating topic and one that will bring the viewer additional enjoyment. If you are looking, for instance, at pictures by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, it helps to know something about religious symbolism.  

Art History can often be like detective work. Medieval historians recently became intrigued by the discovery of what is now claimed to be the only picture produced in her life time of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Experts analysed contemporary personal descriptions, royal inventories, inscriptions and accounts of the fashion of the time. It is now accepted that it is almost certainly Anne Boleyn.

If you want to know more about a picture or artefact in your possession, there are basically two ways to go about it. If you know who the work is by and a little bit about it, the best idea is to consult experts and dealers in that field. There are firms that specialise, for example, in pictures of hunting, military painting, portraiture and sport – to name but a few. If you do not know who to consult, the best advice is to ask at your local museum or art gallery. The web might also be helpful here.

If you have no idea at all (but you hope your pension plan may beckon), consult one of the big auction houses. Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams are the most famous and will have the largest pool of expertise in most fields.  If the item has a strong local connection, an auction house nearer to home may be the best bet. Any firm involved will want the following:

  • clear colour photographs (front and back);
  • close up photograph of the signature or any identification mark;
  • history of the item (when and how it was acquired); and
  • copies of any existing appraisal or literature about it.

Art often promotes ideas but also reflects the age in which it was produced. Here are some suggestions if you want to find out more about a painting or other work of art. Start with the artist and the period in which he or she worked. Two standard works that may help you are:

  • The Oxford Companion to Art, Harold Osborne (ed), Oxford University Press, and
  • The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists, Peter and Linda Murray, Penguin.

You will then want to look at more specialist details, such as clothes, artistic movements of the time and a history of the times in which it was created.

You will get extra enjoyment from art if you know something about how to analyse a painting or work of art. Start with the title and its contents. What is it about and why was it painted? Was it commissioned or for general sale? Look at the size, the framing and the style (the posh word for this is “genre” – the term dates back to the French Academy and the 18th Century). What medium was used (for example, oils, watercolours, charcoal, pen or pencil)?  

You will then be ready to analyse some of the techniques that the artist uses. These will include brushwork (thick or thin), colour and tone, foreground and background and focal points (Christ is often in white at the centre of religious painting to draw the viewer’s attention immediately to him). The discovery of perspective in the Renaissance revolutionised art; painting is two dimensional but life is three dimensional. The viewer is also important; everybody will come to a work of art with his or her subjective views and opinions. Where does the viewer stand in relation to the picture – looking up, down or on the level?

Photography has added another very important source for historians. Make sure that elderly relatives identify family pictures before it is too late! Scrap books can be a source of endless fascination and interest, from poking fun at your parents (did you really wear that hat, Mum?) through to offering local historians an invaluable record and insight into domestic life in the past.  Local, regional and national newspapers have picture libraries that are often now computerised. There are picture agencies that will provide photographs on a very wide variety of topics.

Historians should be aware of that age-old adage: a picture is worth a thousand words.

You can find additional help in:
The Story of Art, E.H. Gombrich, (Phaidon) This is the standard introductory history from ancient times to the recent past: endlessly reprinted.
Picture agencies covering almost every subject are listed in the current edition of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (A and C Black). Your library is almost certain to have a copy.


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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