An unexpected gem in the heart of Clerkenwell
“One thing worth looking at before we move on is the painting over there by Caravaggio,” says Marianne Zieran, at the beginning of one of the many tours she, a Danish-born museum guide, leads on a weekly basis. Yet this is not the National Gallery, and the canvas hanging on the wall is not among the many of the Italian artists you can you can find in a history of art textbook. We are, instead, in the heart of Clerkenwell, in the Museum of the Order of St. John; and the story behind this Caravaggio painting has hints of a Dan Brown-like mystery novel.
The painting in oil on canvas, long thought to be a copy of Italian Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s 1594 “The Cardsharps” rather than an original, portrays the staging of a fraud: a well-dressed but unworldly young boy in the act of being duped by two cardsharps, sleight-of-hand tricksters, with whom he is engaged in a card game. The former is on the left, engrossed in his cards, with no clue that, behind his back, a man is peering over his shoulder and signalling to his young accomplice which cards he is about to play; on the right is the younger cheat, reaching nonchalantly behind his back to pull a hidden extra card tucked under his belt. The theme of deception and lost innocence are rendered in a straightforward, novelistic way, through a masterful game of glances and secluded gesture; a human drama that, not foreign to the slums of Baroque Rome, Caravaggio must have known rather well.
The story of this version of “The Cardsharps” does not lack controversies or unexpected twists – to the point that it even ended up being the subject of a court case. Initially owned by Lancelot William Thwaytes, the painting was entrusted by him to auction house Sotheby’s to be analysed; there it was put up for auction and sold in 2006 for the price of £42,000, labelled as a copy of the 1594 original by one of Caravaggio’s followers – the original was commissioned by Caravaggio’s patron, Cardinal Francesco Del Monte, and is currently on display at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The Kimbell version is commonly recognised as an undisputed Caravaggio.
A friend of the art historian and collector Sir Denis Mahon hence bought it and had the canvas cleaned and restored. After further analysis and supporting the connoisseurship of Caravaggio scholars Mina Gregori and Maurizio Marini, Sir Denis stated that the painting at issue was in fact an original of the Italian master, an earlier version of the Kimbell painting. To support their thesis on the originality of the painting is the presence of a “pentimento”: through X-ray analysis, they found traces of a sketch in full detail of the face of one of the cardsharps, realised before being painted over by the page’s hat. This detail, they say, is unlikely to be the work of a forger.
After Mahon’s claim, the painting’s value skyrocketed to £10 million – way more than the thousands Thwaytes, through Sotheby’s intermediary, sold it for. Its former owner, therefore, sued the auction house for having allegedly given him “negligent” advice about the painting’s worth, claiming that it had not consulted enough experts nor sufficiently tested the canvas before setting the price for the sale. A number of leading experts were called to testify in court in favour or against Thwaytes’s claim – including Caravaggio scholar Richard E. Spear, whose opinion was that the painting at issue was, in fact, “nothing more than one of numerous copies”.
In the case of “The Cardsharps”, “every scientific avenue was put to the court in submissions,” says Christopher Hanges, art lawyer at 36 Bedford Row Chambers, “[although] none were determinative. They added weight to one view or another, but no single one trumped all else. Ultimately the finding was that Sotheby’s had not been negligent in focussing on a substantial body of opinion that would have been more compelling in 2006 when the decision was made,” he says.
“However,” says Richard Sims, senior legal advisor at the Museum of the Order of St. John, “the court made no comment on the authenticity of the painting.”
To establish with absolute certainty whether a painting is the work of an old master or a copy, however well done it may be, is in fact rather difficult. As art historian Michael Savage notes: “On the question of how others can decide about attribution there is an unavoidably subjective element, because it involves questions of style and technique and quality that cannot precisely be codified. The views of experts who are recognised by their peers are rightly given special deference. But there is always a risk of ‘groupthink’ – everyone might be making the same mistakes. In most cases attributions are fairly settled. But there will always be some problem with pictures that reasonable people disagree over. We just have to accept some ambiguity.”
Meanwhile, in February 2013, the owner, through The Sir Denis Mahon Charitable Trust, loaned “The Cardsharps” to the Museum of the Order of St. John. “Following Sir Denis’s desire for his own collection to be exhibited where it may be viewed for free, this painting too is now available for all to see,” says Tom Foakes, curator of the museum.
There, together with the other works of art on display – of all kinds, from paintings and illuminated manuscripts to medieval weapons, from ancient coins to decorative furniture, ceramics, silverware and textiles, and even a bronze cannon donated by King Henry VIII – the painting has become part of the museum’s narrative trail, a chronicle of the fortunes of the chivalric Order of St. John and its several migrations through the Mediterranean sea, from its origins in the 11th century Jerusalem as a place for pilgrims to find shelter and care to its role today and its links with St. John Ambulance.
Caravaggio himself was made a Knight of the Order, after having sought refuge on Malta to escape charges of murder in 1606. “This was probably because he was a famous person,” Zieran notes. “While on Malta, he painted various commissions for the Knights, and he therefore has a close connection,” Foakes says. Among the works the artist realised in that period was his “Beheading of John the Baptist”, which still hangs in St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valetta. “Being able to display a work by Caravaggio within the museum galleries means that it is possible to tell this interesting aspect of the Order’s story,” Foakes says.
How long the painting will stay in Clerkenwell is yet to be seen. “The loan is on an annual basis, it is renewed each year,” explains Richard Sims. “It may be that at some point the painting could go on tour elsewhere in the country or in the world for some time. But, still, we at the museum are going on the assumption that it will be here for quite a while.”
As long as “The Cardsharps” hangs on its walls, the Museum of the Order of St. John is certainly worth a visit.