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National Trust finds rare Gothic altarpiece in stables

Seven hundred year-old painting was dismissed as nineteenth-century

London

A dusty panel discovered in the stables of Kingston Lacey, the Dorset country house, has turned out to be one of the oldest surviving English paintings. The find, revealed by The Art Newspaper, is likely to add considerably to our knowledge about the early development of panel painting in Northern Europe.

The Kingston Lacey panel depicts four figures, inserted in Gothic screenwork. Sitting on thrones, the figures are set against a dark green background decorated with stylised flowers.

Charles Tracy , a woodwork specialist who has studied the Kingston Lacey panel, is convinced it is English and dates it to about 1300-1310. His conclusion is based on the style of both the carved screenwork and the painted figures. A technical examination has revealed that an oil medium was used and the pigments are consistent with the dating. The paint was applied directly onto the oak, not on gesso as is more usual.

Mr Tracy initially assumed that the 84 x 110 cm panel was from a rood screen, but he now believes that it once formed part of an altarpiece. The discovery raises the possibility that the rest of the altarpiece could survive, its importance unrecognised.

How the panel ended up at Kingston Lacey, in Dorset, remains a mystery. The most likely explanation is that it was bought by William John Bankes, a Gothic enthusiast, who rebuilt the house in the late 1830s. Bankes was an avid collector and following his death in 1855, the large attic, known as the Tent Rooms became a store for many of his acquisitions.

After the National Trust acquired Kingston Lacey in 1981 the attic was gradually cleared, with many of the less important items moved to the stables. The dirty panel of the four figures was assumed to be a nineteenth-century Gothic imitation, and only recently was it properly examined.

An intriguing indication of its earlier provenance is an ink inscription on the reverse, probably dating from the late eighteenth century. It records that the panel had come from a Northamptonshire church, although Mr Tracy’s research leads him to question this. His full account will be published next year in Apollo magazine.

The panel is now being conserved by Sophie Plender. Next year the National Trust, owner of the work, is to offer it on long-term loan to the British Museum. There it is likely to be displayed alongside the pair of recently discovered panels of 1264 from the Painted Chamber of the Palace of Westminster.