Church’s Old Master painting valued at £100,000 by BBC TV show

Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce with the cleaned painting.
Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce with the cleaned painting.

A mystery painting that has hung in a Tunstall church for hundreds of years has been revealed as a Renaissance treasure worth at least £100,000.

The identity of the painter was revealed after an exhaustive investigation by the team from the BBC TV programme Fake or Fortune, which investigates the provenance of paintings in an attempt to prove whether they are real or just fake.

At the climax of last night’s edition, shown at 8pm on BBC1, the identity was confirmed by experts as Francesco Montemezzano – a ‘second-level’ Italian artist and contemporary of some of the greats such as Tinteretto and Titian.

The programme also investigated the original purchase of the painting which brought it to Tunstall, uncovering a complicated family web that ultimately led to the buyer being identified, not as Richard Toulmin-North, patron of the church, but as his illegitimate half-brother Frederick Needham, who was a past vicar of St John’s in the early 1800s.

The current vicar of St John’s Church in Tunstall, Rev Mark Cannon, and the church warden, Jane Greenhalgh, were involved in the programme and were filmed showing presenters Fiona Bruce and renowned art expert Philip Mould, the uncleaned and unknown painting at the start of the show.

They were then seen with the fully cleaned and revived painting at the end of the programme, complete with attribution.

Descent from the Cross after cleaning.

Descent from the Cross after cleaning.

In between those two points the investigation took the presenters to Cambridge, London and Venice to get the answers they needed.

In an exclusive interview with the Church of England in Lancashire recorded on the last day of filming, Fiona and Philip talked about the experience of making the programme and revealing the painting and its history, in more ways than one!

Fiona said: “It was filthy and dark but very early on Philip thought it was Venetian because of the style and colours particularly. But now you can see it has jewel-like, enamel-like colours.

“We went back to the late 16th century where we knew because of the style it wasn’t quite good enough to be a Tinteretto or Titian– the premier division of artists at that time.

“But we have found a name, thanks to an Italian scholar who plucked it, like a rabbit out of a hat really – and it wasn’t one we were familiar with.

Philip continued: “It was an extraordinary transformation and on a scale that is pretty well unmatched. It was a religious experience watching it being cleaned!

“The process of cleaning the painting was like getting to know the individual (who painted it).

“Although Venetian art is awash with major names, there is a level below who are capable of great feats of artistic distinction and one of the great things about this programme is we have (identified) an individual who deserves a little bit of recognition.”

“And that name is Francesco Montemezzano,” said Fiona.

“He was an Italian artist who painted in Venice in the late 16th century – he lived a short life and died from a life of excess but he is, according to the reputed scholars of this country and Italy, the artist.

Philip added: “The really wonderful thing is this painting was designed to hang in a church, to tell a story and communicate itself to a congregation and now, 400 years later, cleaned and hanging in St John’s in Tunstall, with any luck it will do it again.”

A member of that congregation and churchwarden, Jane Greenhalgh, was lucky enough to get the chance to visit Cambridge to watch the investigation into the painting and has thoroughly enjoyed her experience filming with the Fake or Fortune team.

In the video Jane says: “They came to see the painting before Christmas and soon decided it was a goer. We started filming in March.

“As part of the filming work I’ve had the good fortune to go to Cambridge and see the picture forensically examined and infra-red photographs taken of it which was fascinating.

“I was not too concerned about value, more about what it was; it was so incredibly dirty it was hard to see!”

Vicar, Rev Mark Cannon, added: “We were hopeful of discovering something about its history, how it got here and why it’s in the church.

“We’ve been down some blind alleys but in the end what was neglected by us all at the back of the church turns out to be something quite special.”

“It has been an exciting journey and in the end the value became less and less important - even though it is worth a lot of money we are now focussing on using it for what it was intended for – as an object of devotion and reflection that will draw people to the church on many levels.

Jane continued: “We are absolutely delighted to find out it is by a notable artist, even if not so well known, but it doesn’t alter the fact that the picture has hung in our church for over 200 years and we now want to celebrate it and enjoy it. But this is not all about just having a beautiful painting it’s about mission as well.”

Mark elaborated adding: “The painting was given by a former vicar who obviously thought it would be an aid to devotion for his parishioners, so we hope it can do that again now.”

The result of the investigation has also been welcomed by the Archdeacon for the area, The Venerable Michael Everitt, Archdeacon of Lancaster.

Archdeacon Michael said today: “It was one of the most fascinating editions of Fake or Fortune ever and, as well as featuring the beautiful painting, I was struck too how beautifully the programme showcased the wonderful part of our Diocese where St John’s is situated.”

“I am delighted with the outcome and I thank Fiona, Philip and the rest of the BBC team as well as the vicar Mark; churchwarden Jane and all the parishioners for their hard work in solving the mystery of the painting.

“I am so pleased for the church that they can now name the artist of this stunning picture of Christ.

“Obviously the outcome has implications for the future and the church, which has extensive security measures in place, has reinforced them with other measures which we can’t discuss further for obvious reasons.”