The first time I met Nicholas Penny, around ten years ago, the first thing I asked him was, “Are you the man who discovered the Raphael?” “I’m glad you remembered that,” said Penny. “That was almost a year ago and people are already beginning to forget.” But it is the kind of story that sticks in the mind, and if, like me, you are bedeviled by fantasies of discovering overlooked masterpieces, why then it is the kind of story about which you want to learn more. Penny found the Raphael in a corridor in Alnwick Castle, the seat of the Duke of Northumberland. It was not, as it soon became in the retelling, a darkened corridor. Nor was it in the attic. It was a reasonably well-lit corridor near the private breakfast room on the piano nobile of the castle.
Penny, who was then Clore Curator of Renaissance Art at the National Gallery in London (he is now Curator of Sculpture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington), had been visiting Alnwick in order to study the paintings. He had been treated well—wined and dined, put up for the night, allowed to examine everything that interested him—and was in a good mood. After lunch on the second day, he felt, on rising from the table, a sense that he ought, perhaps, to do something to show his appreciation. He had indeed been lucky. Other informants tell me that the food at Alnwick Castle was always notoriously foul, even by the standards of the English country house—so foul that the family themselves could never wait to get away from the table.
He stood up, with the vague sense that there might be some pleasant, polite gesture he might make. He strolled out into the corridor and he paused in front of a picture. It was in a very well carved nineteenth-century gilt boxwood frame. Along the top of the frame was its title, Madonna dei Garofani (the Madonna of the Carnations, or Pinks). On the base was the name of the artist, “Raphael.” Penny (who had coauthored a book on Raphael ) paused and thought: “That must have been a very expensive frame to make.” And this thought, which for most of us would have been inconsequential, led on to other thoughts.
I ought here to explain that Penny is an expert on frames, as on many aspects of the decorative arts. For the National Gallery in London he has written a pocket guide on the subject. The other day in New York he astonished a dealer friend of mine by identifying, on the basis of its frame, the collection a painting had once belonged to. What impressed my friend was the fact that they were not even in the same room as the painting in question—it was something Penny had glimpsed in the distance. And this was only one of many fruitful observations made in a short visit.
Penny looked at the frame …