Connoisseurship and History

There have been debates in recent years over the use and importance of connoisseurship in art. That is, the deeper knowledge of an artist that helps a researcher to ‘recognise’ a particular hand on a canvas, through extensive study and a lot of, well, looking. As Dr Bendor Grosvenor (of Fake or Fortune fame), puts it*:

“The word connoisseurship derives from the Latin cognoscere, which means ‘to get to know’. So a connoisseur of, say, Rembrandt, is someone who has got to know Rembrandt’s work so well that he or she can begin to discern what is and isn’t a Rembrandt.”

Historians studying the English Civil War through documents and archival research would be well advised to gain a little understanding of the period’s art too. A painting with a tentatively identified sitter may strengthen its case if a historian, knowing the sitter’s family tree, recognises a past owner of the painting as a distant relative nobody else would be aware of. Without an understanding of both the art AND the history, this information may never have been discovered.

I’ve already noted the lazy habit of attributing a c.1640s work to only Dobson or Walker,  irrespective of the fact that other artists were at work too, and that the brushwork may not even resemble their technique or style. With the arrival of the brilliant BBC Your Paintings** website that lists every artwork in public ownership in the UK, it’s been easy to contrast and compare pictures that are said to be by the same hand but are plainly not, and fascinating to observe how little connoisseurship is sometimes applied in suggesting an owner for that hand.

For example:

This is a Dobson.

Charles II
“Charles II as Prince of Wales”, probably 1642, © National Galleries of Scotland


FanshaweSir Simon Fanshawe”, c.1645, ©Valence House Museum

…is not, although its listing on Your Paintings claims it is. Can you tell the difference?



*Follow his excellent blog at

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Neil Jeffares

Fairness, candour & curiosity – from finance to art history

NT Knole Conservation Team Blog

An insight into the weird and wonderful life of a National Trust Conservation Team at one of England's greatest houses.

Cryssa Bazos

17th Century Enthusiast

Warring Words

Writing about the English Civil War

Painted Eloquence

An art history blog

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