One of the most discussed Italian Renaissance pictures in Scotland, the Duke of Buccleuch’s putative Leonardo da Vinci “Madonna of the Yarnwinder”, is shortly to come under even closer scrutiny. The national press seized on the announcement that the Buccleuch painting is to be examined in the context of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland (15 May-12 July 1992), the Daily Telegraph stating excitedly that “its double recently turned up in America”. In fact the New York version in question is already well known, residing in the Reeford Collection in Montreal.
The image was clearly one of Leonardo’s most popular, since as the exhibition’s organiser, Professor Martin Kemp of St Andrew’s University (and one of the doyens of Leonardo studies) points out,
“Of the many versions known, at least a dozen closely resemble the Buccleuch picture”; the National Gallery of Scotland even has its own, albeit of poor quality.
The Buccleuch and New York pictures will be shown in the Edinburgh exhibition, along with an impressive array of comparative material including drawings lent from the Royal Collection, Chatsworth, the Louvre, the Venice Accademia, the British Museum and elsewhere.
Professor Kemp dismisses any idea of the exhibition’s being an “either/or battle between the two versions”. He says the show will be “a workshop exhibition” and hopes to determine “whether there was a common Leonardo cartoon for them all”.
Of the Buccleuch picture, he says that it “stands a very good chance of being by Leonardo in the broadest sense of the word...there is some Leonardo in it”, a cautious retreat from the greater certainty expressed by previous scholars. Emil Moeller wrote in favour of Leonardo’s involvement in the Burlington Magazine in 1926, as did Cecil Gould, David Caritt (“a large part...is Leonardo’s own”) and, after prolonged indecisions in print, Lord Clark. The picture became the centrepiece of the 1939 Leonardo exhibition in Milan, but since then has received little public attention.
The Duke of Buccleuch comments that in spite of the flurry of attention given to his painting in the national press (with values such as £20 million being mentioned) there is no question of its leaving the family collection.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Enigma and variations'