Dramatic headlines (again)
Ignoring the results entirely, Metro News Vancouver, which favours the use of the word ‘fraud’, featured it in the headline of a second article about the testing, “Alleged Group of Seven work a fraud: VAG curator” by Thandi Fletcher (June 5, 2014 print issue); happily the online version of Fletcher’s story has had its headline changed to the more accurate: “Alleged Group of Seven painting not an authentic Lawren Harris, says Vancouver Art Gallery curator.” Fletcher’s article was updated after its initial publication with some additional text (it is worth checking out the online version even if you’re already seen the print version). There had been a second Vancouver Metro article on the testing of the authenticated painting by Nick Wells but that in common, with his June 4, 2014 article about the first test, “A fraud or a find?” is no longer available online. Note: Standard mainstream media practice is that the writer with the byline for the article is not usually the author of the article’s headline.
There are two points to be made here. First, Robertson has not attempted to represent ‘Autumn Harbour’ as an authentic Lawren Harris painting other than in a misguided headline for his 2011 news release. From Robertson’s July 26, 2011 news release (published by Reuters and published by Market Wired) where he crossed a line by stating that Autumn Harbour is a Harris in his headline (to my knowledge the only time he’s done so),
Lost Lawren Harris Found in Bala, Ontario
Unknown 24×36 in. Canvas Piques a Storm of Controversy
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA–(Marketwire – July 26, 2011) –
Was Autumn Harbour painted by Lawren Harris in the fall of 1912? That summer Lawren Harris was 26 years old and had proven himself as an accomplished and professional painter. He had met J.E.H. MacDonald in November of 1911. They became fast friends and would go on to form the Group of Seven in 1920 but now in the summer of 1912 they were off on a sketching expedition to Mattawa and Temiscaming along the Quebec-Ontario border. Harris had seen the wilderness of the northern United States and Europe but this was potentially his first trip outside the confines of an urban Toronto environment into the Canadian wilderness.
By all accounts he was overwhelmed by what he saw and struggled to find new meaning in his talents that would capture these scenes in oil and canvas. There are only two small works credited to this period, archived in the McMichael gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario. Dennis Reid, Assistant Curator of the National Gallery of Canada stated in 1970 about this period: “Both Harris and (J.E.H.) MacDonald explored new approaches to handling of colour and overall design in these canvases. Harris in particular was experimenting with new methods of paint handling, and Jackson pointed out the interest of the other painters in these efforts, referring to the technique affectionately as ‘Tomato Soup’.” For most authorities the summer and fall of 1912 are simply called his ‘lost period’ because it was common for Harris to destroy, abandon or give away works that did not meet his standards. The other trait common to Harris works, is the lack of a signature and some that are signed were signed on his behalf. The most common proxy signatory was Betsy Harris, his second wife who signed canvases on his behalf when he could no longer do so.
So the question remains. Can an unsigned 24×36 in. canvas dated to 1900-1920 that was found in a curio shop in Bala, Ontario be a long lost Lawren Harris? When pictures were shown to Charles C. Hill, Curator of Canadian Art, National Gallery of Canada, he replied: “The canvas looks like no Harris I have ever seen…” A similar reply also came from Ian Thom, Head Curator for the Vancouver Art Gallery: “I do not believe that your work can be connected with Harris in any way.” [emphases mine] Yet the evidence still persists. The best example resides within the National Art Gallery. A 1919, 50.5 X 42.5 in. oil on rough canvas shows Harris’s style of under painting, broad brush strokes and stilled composition. Shacks, painted in 1919 and acquired the Gallery in 1920 is an exact technique clone of Autumn Harbour. For a list of comparisons styles with known Harris works and a full list of the collected evidence please consult www.1912lawrenharris.ca/ and see for yourself.
If Robertson was intent on perpetrating a fraud, why would he include the negative opinions from the curators or attempt to authenticate his purported Harris? The 2011 website is no longer available but Robertson has established another website, http://autumnharbour.ca/.
It’s not a crime (fraud) to have strong or fervent beliefs. After all, Robertson was the person who contacted ProSpect* Scientific to arrange for a test.
Second, Ian Thom, the VAG curator did not call ‘Autumn Harbour’ or David Robertson, a fraud. From the updated June 5, 2014 article sporting a new headline by Thandi Fletcher,
“I do not believe that the painting … is in fact a Lawren Harris,” said Ian Thom, senior curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, “It’s that simple.”
It seems Thom feels as strongly as Robertson does; it’s just that Thom holds an opposing opinion.
Monetary value was mentioned earlier as an incentive for Robertson’s drive to prove the authenticity of his painting, from the updated June 5, 2014 article with the new headline by Thandi Fletcher,
Still, Robertson, who has carried out his own research on the painting, said he is convinced the piece is an authentic Harris. If it were, he said it would be worth at least $3 million. [emphasis mine]
“You don’t have to have a signature on the canvas to recognize brushstroke style,” he said.
Note: In a June 13, 2014 telephone conversation, Robertson used the figure of $1M to denote his valuation of Autumn Harbour and claimed a degree in Geography with a minor in Fine Arts from the University of Waterloo. He also expressed the hope that Autumn Harbour would prove to be a* Rosetta Stone of sorts for art pigments used in the early part of the 20th century.
As for the owner of Hurdy Gurdy and the drama that preceded its test on June 4, 2014, Fletcher had this in her updated and newly titled article,
Robertson said the painting’s owner, local Vancouver businessman Tony Ma, had promised to bring the Harris original to the chemistry conference but pulled out after art curator Thom told him not to participate.
While Thom acknowledged that Ma did ask for his advice, he said he didn’t tell him to pull out of the conference.
“It was more along the lines of, ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t do it, because I don’t think it’s going to accomplish anything,’” said Thom, adding that the final decision is up to Ma. [emphasis mine]
A request for comment from Ma was not returned Wednesday [June 5, 2014].
Thom, who already examined Robertson’s painting a year ago [in 2013? then, how is he quoted in a 2011 news release?], said he has no doubt Harris did not paint it.
“The subject matter is wrong, the handling of the paint is wrong, and the type of canvas is wrong,” he said, adding that many other art experts agree with him.
* ‘ProsPect’ changed to ‘ProSpect’ on June 30, 2014. Minor grammatical change made to sentence: ‘He also expressed the hope that Autumn Harbour would prove to a be of Rosetta Stone of sorts for art pigments used in the early part of the 20th century.’ to ‘He also expressed the hope that Autumn Harbour would prove to be a* Rosetta Stone of sorts for art pigments used in the early part of the 20th century.’ on July 2, 2014.
ETA July 14, 2014 at 1300 hours PDT: There is now an addendum to this series, which features a reply from the Canadian Conservation Institute to a query about art pigments used by Canadian artists and access to a database of information about them.