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Six degrees from Sir Francis Drake

Newly authenticated self-portrait by Rembrandt took a strange route to Devonshire abbey

The self-portrait returns to public display at Buckland Abbey on 13 June

How did a portrait of Rembrandt, confirmed as an authentic work by the Old Master this week and valued at £30m, end up in 700-year-old abbey in the Devon countryside? By a strange quirk of fate and a tangential connection to the 16th-century explorer Sir Francis Drake, it turns out.

The Self-portrait, dated 1635, was donated to the National Trust in 2010, as part of a small group of pictures from the estate of Lady Samuel of Wych Cross. Because the collection included two seascapes by Willem van de Velde the Younger, accepted lieu of inheritance tax, it was decided to send all the works to Buckland Abbey, which has nautical connections as the former home of Sir Francis Drake.

The self-portrait had been acquired by the Princes of Liechtenstein in the 18th century and it was sold by them in around the 1950s. Lord Samuel, a noted collector of Dutch pictures, bought the painting as a work by Rembrandt in the early 1960s, but in 1968 it was demoted and reattributed to Govaert Flinck. When it was later donated by Lady Samuel’s estate, the work was regarded as from Rembrandt’s studio.

The painting has recently been cleaned and examined by the Hamilton Kerr Institute, outside Cambridge. This showed that the signature and date were authentic. It also revealed compositional changes during the execution of the painting, suggesting it came from Rembrandt’s hand. All the technical evidence pointed towards authenticity.

Ernst van de Wetering, who has headed the Rembrandt Research Project, told us that he is now “convinced” that it is an authentic work by the master. This is also accepted by David Taylor, the National Trust’s curator responsible for paintings.

The self-portrait returns to public display at Buckland Abbey in a special exhibition “Rembrandt Revealed” on 13 June. The painting will also be published in the final volume of the Rembrandt Research Project’s Corpus.

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