Hidden Secrets

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Hidden Secrets

In this blog series, our curators, archivists, conservators and learning team will be bringing together works of art from across the Collection under one theme. From armour and jewellery, to portraits and porcelain, read about some of the most fascinating and marvellous pieces in the Collection here.

Things may not always be what they seem in this week's blog Hidden Secrets...

Jean-François Leleu, Writing table, 1774–6

The French cabinetmaker Jean-François Leleu designed this writing table for reading and letter writing, which were popular eighteenth-century pastimes. This is suggested by a reading stand and compartments for storing books, papers and writing implements.

Three compartment doors across the top of the piece are concealed by dummy book spines which have been tooled and gilded with various titles, including histories of European cities and the texts of Horace and Virgil, which may indicate the studious nature of its original owner. A secret drawer is revealed above the central compartment by pressing one of the rosettes in the gilt-bronze frieze.

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Pieter Pourbus, An Allegory of True Love, c. 1547

This banquet scene is Pieter Pourbus's greatest masterpiece. At first glance, this appears to be a group of men and women gathered around a table in a wooded landscape. Yet, it is also a complex allegory testament to the intellectual environment of Bruges in the mid-sixteenth century.

The old man in the centre is Wisdom, who embraces Fidelity. She is modestly dressed and holds a crucifix that symbolises spiritual love and Christian Matrimony. Their modesty is in strong contrast with the other group of younger men and women. They are Adonis, Acontius, and Daphnis, mythological lovers, accompanied by the three Graces, and represent inconstant love. At their feet, in the lower corners, are Cupid and the Fool or Jester, who warn the viewer of the folly of carnal love.

The scene is closely related to a poem published in 1561 by the Bruges-based scholar Edouard de Dene. Since the picture was painted over a decade before the poem was published, it is possible that the two figures on horseback in the background are Pourbus and Dene, deep in conversation about their painting and poem.

Discover Pourbus's masterpiece as part of our Treasure of the Month series.

Diego Velázquez, Prince Baltasar Carlos in Silver, 1633

Audiences looking at this portrait before 1937 would have seen a very different image. Before the extensive cleaning carried out that year, the curtains and drapery surrounding Prince Baltasar Carlos were a deep green, with golden fringes and a golden tassel hanging on the right edge. The cushion was also overpainted in green and decorated with another golden tassel.

Scholars have previously noted that the curtains and tassels were coarsely painted and were likely later additions that did not resemble Velázquez’s style. The tasselled cushion, which reappears in another portrait of the young Prince in Boston was noticeably better painted.

Consequently, in 1937, it was decided that the painting be restored. The cleaning uncovered the deep red velvet curtains and cushion without tassels that you can now see. The simple composition and austere backdrop recall other portraits by Velázquez, such as the Portrait of Philip IV in Brown and Silver now in the National Gallery, London. Its background, not in perfect condition either, may convey something of the lost tonality of Prince Baltasar’s portrait, which after having been hidden under the extensive green overpaint, has now lost much of its vibrancy. Fortunately, the figure of the Prince always remained untouched, and Velázquez’s masterful brushstrokes on the silver and brown dress remain in good condition.

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Folding hat-lining or secret, Germany, c. 1600–50

Armour had been everywhere on the battlefields of Europe for hundreds of years, but in the seventeenth century, it began a steep decline. The proliferation of handheld firearms and field artillery meant that, for cavalry, speed and range became much more important than strength and the ability to endure sustained attack. To move more rapidly over longer distances, horsemen had to be lighter and mounted on smaller, faster horses. Full plate armour was no longer an option. Indeed the lack of even basic armour became something of a fashion statement. Many cavalrymen, notably the ‘cavaliers’ in the army of King Charles I during the English Civil War (1642–51) made a point of wearing a felt hat rather than a steel helmet.

However, despite this fashionable swagger, many horsemen were secretly unwilling to give up their head protection completely. This folding hat-lining, cleverly made of pivoting steel bars, was designed to be worn under a hat as a hidden form of armour, preserving some degree of protection against sword cuts and concussive blows. Fittingly enough, such a defence was often called a secret.

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Cruet, Venice, late 17th -18th century

At first glance this charming Venetian glass cruet appears intact, but closer inspection reveals that all is not as it seems. The abundance of decorative features distract the eye from several later interventions, undoubtedly introduced together and intended to salvage the damaged vessel for the robust later nineteenth century market in historic Venetian glass.

The original spout and foot are missing and have been replaced by four components from other vessels: the spout, and the mask prunt that hides the straight line of its repair; the replacement foot and the blue ring between it and the original hollow knop, which has been filled with bronze powder paint (now discoloured) and putty to secure the new foot and disguise the method of its adhesion by creating the illusion of gilding. This detail shows the straight edge at the join of the replacement spout to the body. The join was hidden at the front by the addition of a mask prunt.

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Helmet, Iran, late 18th century - early 19th century

As exciting as discovering something secret in a work of art can be, it can also be evidence that something shady is afoot. This helmet is carefully inscribed in both Persian and Armenian and for a Persian reader it is clearly signed and dated “1260” in the Hijri calendar, corresponding to 1844 or 1845 in the Gregorian calendar.

It is therefore surprising that this date is not present in the Armenian inscription, which is otherwise a direct translation of the Persian. Upon closer inspection however, one can see that at the bottom of one the cartouches the otherwise fine vegetal background of pierced steel is strangely coarse and inelegant. The date “1844”, once part of the inscription, has been carefully removed. Although we may never know for certain why this was done, it is possible that an unscrupulous, mid-19th century dealer erased the Gregorian date in order to sell it to a naïve European buyer as an antique.

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