Lost Rubens painting of Jacobean duke found in Glasgow stately home

Pippa Stephenson, curator of European Art at Glasgow Museums, with the lost Rubens’ painting ‘George Villiers, First Duke of Buckingham’
Pippa Stephenson, curator of European Art at Glasgow Museums, with the lost Rubens’ painting ‘George Villiers, First Duke of Buckingham’. Credit: SNS Group/CSG CIC Glasgow Museums

Oil painting by leading 17th-century Flemish artist is of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham – a controversial figure in Jacobean times

For years it was thought that a portrait hanging in a stately home in Glasgow was a fake. The picture of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham – thought to be the lover or at least close confidant of King James I – was widely agreed to be a copy of a lost oil painting by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens.

But restoration work for the BBC Four programme Britain’s Lost Masterpieces suggests that the work is, indeed, original. Tree-ring dating of the wood it was painted on has suggested that it was created in the 1620s, while X-rays and cleaning has shown that it really was the work of one of the greatest Flemish painters in history. The painting at Pollok House had just been covered in layers of overpainting and dirt.

Controversial figure

Rubens' 'George Villiers, First Duke of Buckingham'
Rubens’ ‘George Villiers, First Duke of Buckingham’ Credit: Simon Gillespie Studio

The Duke was a controversial figure in Jacobean times. He was promoted quickly, making him unpopular with anyone of a higher standing. First appearing in the royal court as a dancer in 1615, he was made Viscount in 1616, Earl in 1617, Marquis in 1618 and Duke of Buckingham in 1623. As the only duke in England at the time, he was the highest-ranking subject outside the royal family.

Buckingham’s foreign policy didn’t win him many fans. His aggressive negotiations in the potential marriage of Prince Charles (later Charles I) to the Infanta Maria, the sister of Philip IV of Spain are generally regarded as a disaster – the Spanish ambassador asked Parliament to have him executed for his behaviour. The Spanish match was also unpopular with English Protestants. Buckingham saved himself by proposing war with Spain instead.

Buckingham’s military success fared little better. In 1727, he led an expedition to relieve the Huguenots of La Rochelle, who were under threat from King Louis VIII of France. The expedition was a disaster. He is also seen as the cause of the failure of an expedition to recover the Palatinate and for a poorly executed attack on Cadiz. Parliament twice attempted to impeach him, but Charles I – who had now succeeded James I – stood by the Duke.

Instead, an army officer took the Duke’s life into his own hands. He stabbed Buckingham to death in a pub in Portsmouth in 1628, where he had gone to organise another campaign.   

For a glimpse of the Duke in all his painted glory, the lost Rubens will be on display at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow from Thursday.

The painting will feature in the new series of Britain’s Lost Masterpieces at 9pm on BBC Four on Wednesday.

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