How the El Greco came to Queen’s

Queen's Alumni Review
21 November 2014

Dr. Alfred Bader tells how he discovered the painting that turned out to be an important early El Greco. The painting, The Adoration of the Shepherds, is now part of the collection at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

In 1991, the Agnes Etherington Art Centre purchased a small painting by El Greco at auction with the assistance of Alfred and Isabel Bader. For art historian David McTavish, this was the beginning of an adventure in tracing the work’s origins to El Greco’s early career.

Using investigative methods that included radiography and infrared reflectography, Dr. McTavish mapped out the work’s position in relation to the artist’s early production but also to Cretan art, Renaissance prints and works by Titian, whose ability to convey dramatic light and dynamic movement left an indelible mark on his young Greek follower.

Dr. McTavish’s study of The Adoration of the Shepherds was published by the Agnes Etherington Art Centre this year. The painting, dated around 1567, is currently on tour in Greece as part of a major retrospective of El Greco’s work.

In this article, Dr. Bader tells how he discovered the painting that turned out to be an important early El Greco.

Years ago, Isabel and I were wandering around Brighton in Sussex, England, looking for somewhere to have a minestrone for lunch. We went into a small restaurant owned by an Italian, Gabrio Bonaveri. On the wall were many paintings for sale. I looked at them carefully, of course, and liked one in particular that I realized was old. I had no idea who the painter might be, but learned that it had come from a “knocker,” a man who went from house to house on the off chance of finding something to buy.

Bonaveri appreciated my interest in his paintings and was so pleased to sell me this little painting of The Adoration of the Shepherds for £600 that he didn’t charge us for the minestrone. We learned later that he sold the restaurant and moved, with his paintings, to an apartment in Hove, very close to the house where I had lived as a 15-year-old refugee.

Isabel and I returned to Milwaukee with this little panel and I sent it to be cleaned. Who was the artist? Eventually I wondered if it might possibly be an El Greco. This was a painting that did not fit into our own collection, but it would be a fine addition at Queen’s.

We visited Bonaveri every time we returned to England hoping to find another treasure and bought many paintings, but never anything as exciting. However, we became very good friends, so when I finally decided to send The Adoration to Queen’s, I wondered if Bonaveri might be hurt to learn that he had sold an El Greco for so little.

Fortunately, David McTavish was the art historian at Queen’s most likely to help us solve the puzzle of authorship. We were really excited when he came to the conclusion that The Adoration of the Shepherds could well be an early El Greco. I sent the painting to Christie’s who accepted it as attributed to El Greco, although it was unpublished. I promised Queen’s to cover whatever price it reached at auction and, many years after we bought it, it arrived safely at Queen’s.

David McTavish’s research uncovered a wealth of information that surprised even him. The results are now published in this exciting essay.

We were very sad to learn recently that Gabrio Bonaveri has died. So now I no longer worry.

link to article

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