Just about everyone, it seems, has an opinion or theory about the Lady in a Fur Wrap, from Pollok House guides who have lived with her for many years and regard her as a close friend or an adopted member of their family, to visitors who fall in love with her at first sight, or the many people around the world who know her only through reproductions. Attributed to El Greco (1541–1614) and then thought to be a portrait of the artist’s daughter, the portrait has fascinated viewers ever since it was exhibited in the Louvre, Paris, in 1838-48 – including the young William Stirling (Sir William Stirling Maxwell, 1818-78), who praised it, and even reproduced it photographically for the first time ever, in his pioneering book Annals of the Artists of Spain (1848). Doubts about the identity of both sitter and artist began to emerge in the twentieth century as Art History developed and opportunities to compare artworks through exhibitions and illustrated books increased. As well as art historians through exhibition catalogues and academic books and articles, journalists and bloggers now frequently express their views about the painting in print and broadcast media and on social media. Not surprisingly these days, there are conspiracy theories too, such as suggesting an institutional bias against attributing major works like this to a woman artist Sofonisba Anguissola (1530-1626), or claiming that it’s a nineteenth-century fake.
Nicolaas Henneman, Lady in a Fur Wrap, 1847. Talbotype photographic illustration to Stirling’s Annals. © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. A direct photograph of the original painting wasn’t possible at this early date in photographic history, so a watercolour copy by William Barclay had to be photographed instead. The result wasn’t entirely successful.
The continuing fascination with the Lady in a Fur Wrap is a testament to its outstanding quality and the direct and informal – almost intimate way – the sitter engages with us as viewers. Our collaborative research project has come about as a response to the obvious need for a thorough and objective assessment of all the evidence available on it. X-rays of it were first taken in 1981 but in 2014, the Museo Nacional del Prado kindly offered to carry out scientific examination using the state-of-the-art facilities in their laboratory in Madrid. Now our task is to work closely with them, and in consultation with other specialists in Art History, Technical Art History, Dress and Social History to analyse and interpret the results through detailed comparison with other portraits and their scientific and historical data. Fortunately, we have specialists in Technical Art History and Dress History here at the University of Glasgow. And on hand in the Stirling Maxwell Collection we have relevant comparative paintings which we’re also analysing to help us understand and contextualise portraiture in sixteenth-century Spain.
My own relationship with the Lady in a Fur Wrap began when I came to Glasgow as an undergraduate in History of Art. Our first assignment was a report on an artwork in the city. My Mum’s cousin suggested we visit Pollok House, which contained a famous painting. I’d never heard of the place or the portrait. Later, in my first job at Glasgow Museums, I became more interested in Stirling Maxwell and his collection, and eventually did a PhD at the Courtauld on him as a scholar of Spanish art. My paper for the 2014 conference on El Greco in Toledo outlined the history of the painting up to then and is available on our project webpage. Hopefully it’s a bit more informed than my first Art History assignment but there’s obviously a lot more to be unwrapped on this project.