A painting of The Last Supper that has hung on a church wall in Ledbury, England, since the turn of the last century had been assumed to be 19th century copy of Leonardo's famous work. Until an expert took a closer look.
A vast painting of The Last Supper that has hung in a parish church in Herefordshire for 110 years is being seen in a new light following the discovery of crucial evidence that links it to the workshop of Titian, one of the 16th-century’s greatest masters. Hanging high on a wall, in a fairly grubby state, the 12.5-foot-long painting in St Michael and All Angels church was long assumed to be a much later copy - like many such paintings in churches up and down the land which look like Old Masters, but are modern copies.
Ronald Moore, a conservator and art historian, removed centuries of discoloured varnish and was astonished to discover Titian’s inscribed name and an apostle that must be a portrait of him as the facial features precisely match his self-portrait.
In a three-year study, he linked it to a 1775 letter in which its former owner, John Skippe, an Oxford-educated artist and noted collector, wrote of buying “a most capital and well-preserved picture by Titian” from a wealthy Venetian family, adding that it was commissioned by a Venetian convent. It was donated to the Ledbury church in 1909 by one of Skippe’s descendants.
“It’s so big and nobody’s taken any notice of it for 110 years,” Mr Moore said. “Anything coming from Titian’s workshop is very important indeed.”
Microscopic examination of the picture under ultraviolet light revealed the inscribed name on a jug on the floor, as in another Titian Last Supper. Although damaged, much of the letters TITIANVS could be seen. “That was the absolutely crucial discovery,” Mr Moore said.
Mr Moore has concluded that the painting was created over some 20 years by various painters associated with Titian’s workshop, who were highly adept at simulating his style. The evidence has led him to conclude that the painting was completed around 1580, following the death of Titian in August 1576 and his son Orazio a month later, who are among family members possibly depicted as apostles.
Asked whether the picture is now too valuable for the church to keep, he said: “That’s a tricky one. It was donated on the understanding that it always stays in the church.”
Keith Hilton-Turvey, the church’s rector, expressed excitement: “We’ve really appreciated all the work that he’s done and all that he’s discovered.”
Mr Moore’s research will appear in his forthcoming book, Titian’s Lost Last Supper: A New Workshop Discovery, to be published on 25 March by Unicorn Publishing.