Historic paintings at Raynham Hall revealed to be by 17th century master
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017
They were rather sorrowful, almost ghostly, faces peering out of dark canvas with centuries of dust, grime and over-painting concealing any recognisable artistic talent.
Tucked away, far apart from each other, in a bedroom at Raynham Hall, the portraits were thought to be insignificant copies of miniatures of the two little sisters of Charles II, Henrietta and Elizabeth.
But a restoration project, spearheaded by the hall's owners Lord and Lady Townshend, and some clever detective work has revealed the portraits to be more important than anyone could have imagined.
With the expert help of art conservationist Kiffy Stainer-Hutchins' team, based at nearby Houghton Hall, layers of excess paint and dirt are being removed leading them to suggest that they were actually painted by one of the foremost court painters of the time, Cornelius Johnson.
It is a discovery that has delighted Lady Townshend in particular as she has dedicated the past five years, since the couple took over the historic hall near Fakenham, to cataloguing and restoring all its treasures.
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'They started with the portrait of little Henrietta which we thought was by another artist but by taking off the layers this beautiful little child appeared,' she said.
'There is not another picture of this child at that age anywhere else. It is a national treasure. She looks so sad but she had no idea what was happening to her - she was exiled to France and never saw her father again.'
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It is believed the portraits came to Raynham as a gift from Charles II to thank Horatio Townshend for his support in the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. They hope to get Karen Hearn, the leading expert in Cornelius Johnson, to verify them.
Lady Townshend said: 'We started out curious about the portraits and are now just smitten with these two little girls, they are just mesmerising.'
The hall also holds a copy of a famous painting by Van Dyck of Charles II, Princess Mary and James II as children, which they also hope will be revealed as a Cornelius Johnson once restored, and a major fundraising effort is under way to help pay for the painstaking work.
Lord Townshend said: 'I wish we had started this 25 years ago. There is so much to do but it is very exciting.'
Lord and Lady Townshend introduced a programme of recitals set in the stunning marble hall to raise funds to restore works of art.
Raynham Recitals are led by musical director Professor Michael Chance of the Royal Academy of Music and were inspired by Lady Townshend's personal passion for classical music.
A harpsichord called The Dragon was commissioned for the first recital in 2013.
The next event will be on Saturday, September 23 when Prof Chance, also one of the most celebrated countertenors in the world, will perform Pater Filioque with his son Sasha at 6.30pm. They will be accompanied by Maggie Cole on the harpsichord.
Then on Sunday, September 24 at 3.30pm internationally renowned concert and recording artist Jacob Cordover will play Spanish and Latin American classics on the guitar.
They hope to raise enough funds to start the restoration work on the painting of Elizabeth.
Tickets cost from £18, available online here.