The affair of the Venetian Secret was renowned in the 1790s as a notorious and revealing swindle. It involved an obscure functionary of the royal household in London; the president of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West; and several of the leading artists of the time. Thomas Provis, a sweeper, and his artistically inclined daughter managed to mesmerize West into believing that they had acquired a secret recipe or method that would enable the possessor to paint like Titian and his contemporaries. In return for imparting the secret, they hoped to secure their financial future.
But who should be allowed to possess this secret—the president alone, the members of the Academy, the country as a whole? There was bound to be a fight, and after the secret was imparted, there was bound to be disappointment. This sequence of events was the subject of the recent exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art.
British artists in the eighteenth century held Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and other Venetian masters in great reverence, and some thought that Venice had once possessed some kind of secret method of painting that had since been lost. Perhaps it had to do with the preparation of the canvas or panel, the laying of a “ground” over which to paint. Perhaps it had to do with the “vehicle”—that is to say the oil or other liquid with which the ground pigment was mixed. Or perhaps there was some other trick of the trade, closely guarded within the artists’ studios, now lost in time.
Benjamin West, the American painter who succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as president of the Royal Academy in London, had, after leaving Pennsylvania when he was twenty-six, studied in Italy, both as a student of Anton Raphael Mengs and through copying the Old Masters there, between 1760 and his arrival in London in 1763. This may not seem a very long education, but it gave West an advantage over many a London artist who had not, for instance, spent time copying Titian’s Venus of Urbino in Florence, and who could not claim, as West claimed, to have “formed himself upon” Correggio’s Saint Jerome in Parma.
The list of masterpieces upon which the artists of this period might be said to have formed themselves is very far from obvious to us today, but it is impossible to understand the mentality of the late-eighteenth-century painter, or to appreciate why he might be vulnerable to a particular kind of fraud, without bearing in mind that Titian was a god for him. The work of Titian that such an artist was most likely to admire, the Saint Peter Martyr, no longer exists (it was lost in a fire in the nineteenth century). Another influential painting, still in the Louvre, was Titian’s Mistress, which was held by one artist to exceed “in beauty, simplicity, breadth and every other requisite any great portrait that I have seen.”1 Domenichino’s The Last Communion of Saint Jerome was another masterpiece that stopped visitors in their tracks when Napoleon exhibited it among his loot at the Louvre, along with that fundamental expression of the Renaissance ideal, Raphael’s Transfiguration.
When English travelers took the opportunity to visit Paris during the short-lived Peace of Amiens in 1802, and gaped at the works of art recently confiscated from Italy, this Domenichino was one of the paintings they were most likely to gape at. Charles James Fox, the Whig statesman, was not alone in preferring it “to all the other works,” remarking, “What is an Island to such a Collection?” But the Raphael Transfiguration showed another visitor how that painter had progressed, how “his mind expanded by degrees from Gothic puerility to the most judicious and manly excellence.”
Bolognese, Roman, and Venetian paintings held sway (the legends of Leonardo and Michelangelo were yet to achieve ascendancy), and among these the Venetians Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese exerted a particular allure. West thought that the Venetians had a secret which had been confined to their school: a secret, essentially, of coloring. The Carracci brothers of Bologna “had tried in vain to find it out,” after which Lodovico Carracci had suggested that they try another way to fame: they should pursue “greatness of design.” Correggio in Parma had known the secret, “which He practised with more delicacy than the Venetians.” The two Palmas in Venice—Palma il Vecchio and Palma il Giovane—“had it & with them it died,” for a curious reason (as West explained): the churches and other public spaces of Venice had been filled with paintings, so artists turned instead “to decorate fronts of Houses &c in Fresco & by neglecting the other process it was lost.”2
Another of these key paintings of a former era, Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus (which in due course became number one in the catalog of the newly formed National Gallery in London), was painted after a design of Michelangelo’s, using the secret, which Sebastiano never “discovered”—that is, he never revealed it. This painting was then in a private collection in England, and West hoped that it might be hung in the Royal Academy for six months “for artists to consider it.”
We have to remember not only that the artists of this period had a different list of heroes from today. They could not easily study the paintings of the past, there being as yet no public picture gallery in London. And then, to make matters more complicated still, there is the question: What did Venetian works painted in the sixteenth or seventeenth century look like in the late eighteenth century? When the painter Joseph Farington, an assiduous diarist on whom we have to rely for most of our information about the Venetian Secret affair, told the aged and dying Horace Walpole that the “process” of the Venetian painters had been rediscovered, the great connoisseur replied:
I know not what the Venetian painters were from what I saw at Venice. The celebrated pictures appeared to me all black, I should never have known the famous picture of St. Peter Martyr but from the Print.
And Walpole’s later editor, Robert Berry, told Farington that
in 1791 He was at Venice, and saw some pictures of Tintoretto, which had been affected by the Sea Air, and were taken down to be cleaned &c.—The general appearance was blackish,—but the parts which had been covered by a frame were very brilliant.
Allowing for some exaggeration in such stories, we can still accept that British artists, however much they admired the Venetians, could not very easily study their works, and sometimes, when they did get to study them, were frustrated by what they saw. They admired the Venetians for their coloring, but they were aware that what they were seeing had at least been modified by time. James Northcote, the greatest conversationalist of his day, whose words were admiringly recorded both by William Hazlitt and by another painter, James Ward, told Ward that Rubens’s flesh “was painted on a fine principle that was derived from his study of Titian’s works, which he saw when they were fresh, and it is in the reflected lights and adjuncts where he brings out his gorgeous colour” (my italics).
Northcote—judicious, catty, much imitated for his Devonshire accent, revered by Hazlitt as a living link to the age of Johnson and Reynolds—spoke of Titian with tears in his eyes, but he also had a sense of his limitations (as the same passage shows):
Now, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne—which is in the possession of Hamlet, the jeweller—is not one of that great master’s judicious pictures, for the general effect is not very good, but very weak. But the great glory of it is its colouring; the landscape part is inexpressibly exquisite, indeed all Titian’s landscapes are so. His feeling for history was not of the highest order, but he was the finest portrait and landscape painter in the world…. [The landscape] in the picture I have just mentioned is a representation of the Spanish climate, and is therefore more brilliant than we ever see in our misty atmosphere. The work may be called a wanton display of executive power, as far beyond common nature as the feats of a rope-dancer beyond walking; we may be sure a rope-dancer can walk, therefore a painter who can do work like this, is safe from all inferior attempts. Oh! Titian’s colouring was wonderful; to such a degree, indeed, that no man can tell how it was done. The old masters painted on a system—nobody can doubt that—but, as Sir Joshua used to say, “the recipe is now lost.”3
Joseph Farington, the chief source for the story of the Venetian secret, is also one of the main muck-stirrers in the affair. He was a landscape painter, not an artist of any great distinction but rather an addicted plotter and power broker, whose diary has come down to us in sixteen volumes, plus a thousand pages of index. It is riveting in flashes, ghastly in its great stretches of tedium. It provides sketches of the seating arrangements at practically every dinner he attended. It is full of hints and undercurrents, gossip about every election of every academician, both to the Academy itself and to its key posts, not one of which Farington ever held or even stood for. He was referred to by one (admittedly cantankerous) fellow artist as “Warwick, the King Maker”; elsewhere as “Dictator of the Royal Academy.” Here is Northcote again talking to Ward:
How Farington used to rule the Academy! He was the great man to be looked up to on all occasions; all applicants must gain their point through him. But he was no painter; he cared nothing at all about pictures; his great passion was the love of power—he loved to rule. He did it, of course, with considerable dignity; but he had an untamable spirit, which, I suppose, was due to the fact that he had lost the game as a painter, and that it was too late to mend the matter. Oh! it’s a dreadful thing to find your opportunity gone, and to find no time to retrieve it!
When the great Romantic outsiders of the day—people like William Blake, James Barry, and Benjamin Robert Haydon—felt a loathing for the Academy, the sort of thing they loathed was the sort of thing that Farington stood for. Northcote (no slouch when it came to malice) called the Academy “a nest of vermin.”
I am now sorry that I ever belonged to it at all, and I admire Romney’s conduct in having kept himself aloof from it. One reason why I dislike the Academy is because of that nasty feeling which the French call esprit de corps ; I respect and like many of the members as individuals, but I dislike them as a body, for collectively they have an insolence about them that is insufferable to me; and, what is still worse, those members who have the least pretensions have always the most of this impudence.
Farington came in this last category—something of a gentleman, in a world where many artists came from rather humble backgrounds. Many were foreigners and outsiders. West, for instance, owed his position to the very clear favor he had received from the king, George III, and this favor made West a tempting target.
On December 14, 1796 (the day before an auction in which Gainsborough’s Blue Boy was sold for thirty-five guineas), the painter John Opie called on Farington, and the conversation turned to a painting by Tintoretto which Opie had just seen, which made him compare in his mind the respective qualities of Flemish and Venetian painting. The Venetians, said Opie,
have a simplicity like Water Colour with force of Oil, and have more natural breadth of colour, & less of tinting than the Flemish Masters: neither have [they] that varnishy appearance which is seen in the works of the latter.
(Opie is referring here to Rubens, Van Dyck, and their contemporaries, not to the earlier painters of the Flemish school, who were as yet a closed book to Farington.)
Then Opie imparts the kind of nugget that Farington adored:
The Person who communicated to West what He calls the Venetian secret of colouring is [Thomas] Provis, sweeper to St. James’s Chapel, whose daught[e]r Opie knows. She paints a little. Opie gives little credit to the story.
This was intriguing, no doubt, although the notion that such a lowly member of the royal household as a sweeper could hold such a secret must have seemed improbable. The authors of the attractive little catalog of the Yale exhibition, Angus Trumble and Mark Aronson, tell us that such a servant at St. James’s Palace
was fairly close to the King’s herb-strewer, the Queen’s chocolate-maker, the yeomen of the Queen’s Removing Wardrobe, table-deckers, bread-bearers, “cock-and-cryers” (who still existed in 1816), yeomen of the mouth, and laundresses of the body linen….
Five days later, Opie dropped in again, with more news about Provis and West. Provis had found the Venetian secret, he said, “in an old book belonging to an Italian relation of his who died some time ago.” West, under Provis’s instruction, had taken a small old canvas and made a painting on it which, Opie thought, appeared to have “much of the apparent propertys of the Venetian School of Colouring.” West had gone so far as to say that “the vehicle is an Oil but the grease is discharged from it.” Provis proposed to yield up his secret for £500, which would make an annuity for his daughter.
The price of the secret now began to edge up. On January 5, 1797, it was £600, and Provis was said to be uneasy at West’s delay “recommending” the discovery (he had communicated it to him, in part, twelve months before). Farington here made his first intervention, telling the painter Richard Westall that the best thing would probably be for Provis to tell the secret to individuals at a stipulated price, “engaging each to secrecy till He has recd. the Sum He requires.” And then Farington comments: “It seems as if West protracts that He may have the advantage of the novelty in the next Exhibition.”
Now this notion that West was behaving badly toward Provis, that he was trying to cheat him—this all depends on Farington’s account of what Provis told him. It was typical of Farington, who was, as fellow academician Paul Sandby put it in a letter, “a man ever busy to form a party on his side, who persuaded the rest to join him….”4 It was typical too that no sooner had news of this artistic discovery (if such it was) been spread around than Farington had identified a way of ensuring that West should not enjoy any unfair advantage from it, even to the extent of presenting a work at the annual exhibition, to illustrate the supposed secret.
The next night, at a dinner of the Academy Club (the artists’ dining club, which still meets today), the members learned that Provis and his secret had been knocking around for two or three years, at a price tag of £1,000, and that more than one artist had advised him to do what he had indeed done—go to West, as president of the Academy, and let West experiment with the secret. If it turned out to be valuable, West could recommend it to the Academy. West had been doing just that, but had taken his time before forming any conclusion, and Provis was becoming impatient and distrustful.
Provis himself, as Farington’s account proceeds, appears to have been a swindler. He claimed that his grandfather went to Italy, where the secrets of Titian and the great masters were “communicated to him by his friend Signor Barri,” but that his papers had been burned with his house in Ryder Street, St James’s. Conveniently for his story, however, he had
copied from the book of manuscripts, which treated of many other subjects, all that related to painting for His daughters use who was then practising that art.
The daughter, as Provis explained to Farington over tea, “is delicate of constitution & the Oil &c as is commonly used affected Her, which made this process doubly desireable.”
There is much in this relationship of Provis and his daughter to engage the imagination. Trumble and Aronson wonder whether Ann Jemima Provis was indeed her father’s daughter, or whether she was not a common-law wife, passing as a relative. For my part, I wonder whether my first instinct—imagining the father abusing the daughter, forcing her to demonstrate the process he had stumbled on—is at all correct. Why should it not be the daughter who, believing herself to have cracked the Venetian Secret, sent her father out into the world on her behalf? In this case, Miss Provis would be the aesthetic equivalent of Joanna Southcott, the prophetess who, also in the 1790s, “sealed the elect,” i.e., sold seals to those who were chosen of God at a charge between twelve shillings and a guinea each, and who left behind a mysterious box, which was supposed to hold the Panacea, but which turned out to contain some rubbish, a lottery ticket, and a horse pistol.
Thomas Provis’s cover story about the lost manuscript would still be a lie, but it would be an attempt to get a hearing for his daughter’s theories, which Provis, for all we know, may have faithfully believed. But Miss Provis had five years earlier suffered a “mental derangement” in consequence of overwork in studying the Old Masters, and had been under the care of two doctors. Farington tells us that “her disposition is very amiable, and she is of a religious turn.”
The Venetian Secret survives in three manuscript copies, which the brief catalog does not reproduce. One of them, believed to be perhaps the closest to the presumed original, turned up in an Oxford bookshop and was donated to the Ashmolean Museum, where I have been able to study it. It is titled “The Venetion manner of Painting particularly laid down, relating to the Practice by A.J.P. [presumably Ann Jemima Provis].” The twelve-page text begins:
It has been fully discovered in the Pictures of Titian, Georgione, and G. Bassan, as also in the works of other esteemed Masters of the Venetion School, that they painted each upon Dark Brown Grounds, and likewise upon Grounds of a more Red cast, especially Titian, who made frequent use of the latter.
Nothing in the text bears any suggestion of an Italian source for the information contained, and there is no mention of Signor Barri, or of Provis’s grandfather. There is no talk of a secret, and no evidence of Thomas Provis’s hand in the affair. It is as if the author believed that upon examination of the Italian masters, this must have been how they worked: they laid a ground, then they painted in the figures and other details in what would have looked like a sort of grisaille. Then, having let that layer dry thoroughly, they applied successive layers of glaze—thin solutions of transparent color—to achieve a rich effect:
After the Picture is finished in the hightenings, broke down &c also perfectly dry and hard, proceed then to the colouring, making use only, of transparent colours throughout the whole, remembering that the substance or body of every object is already formed in the underwork, which forms, should in no wise be obscured, by any opacity of Colours laid over them.
If it takes some imagination to enter into the mentality of an educated male eighteenth-century painter, how much more is needed to penetrate the world of Miss Provis, daughter of a royal sweeper? She is writing—if she is indeed the author of this document—of the practice of the Old Masters, but how many Titians, Giorgiones, and Bassanos could she have seen, and to what extent could she have examined them? And if she had examined some Titians, would they have been works we now consider to be by Titian? If she, for instance, had gone around Blenheim Palace, and had been allowed to see the Titian room (which women were not encouraged to see), the works there were all mistakenly attributed.
The Provises have been mocked in the past for their ignorance in including Prussian blue, which had not been invented in Titian’s lifetime, in their list of possible ingredients. But maybe Miss Provis felt that she had correctly intuited the series of procedures used by Titian, and that this, rather than the materials used in his time, was what counted. She writes that a gray tint is made out of ivory black, indigo, and lake, in linseed oil, and claims that this is
what may be found [by implication, under the glazes] in Titian’s best colouring; though upon nice examination, we are led to believe that Titian used Ultramarine and not Indigo; yet still the latter is considered to be the best substitute for Ultramarine in making that Tint.
In other words, if you were faking Titians, yes, you would have to use ultramarine, but if you simply want to paint the way Titian painted…indigo will do. The crucial thing is the method—the ground, the underpainting, the glazes.
At the Yale Center for British Art, which has a rich reserve stock of the work of Benjamin West, the curators were under the impression that they possessed the first version of West’s Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1796–1797), which was designed by West to be the showpiece for the Venetian Secret process. This would have been the painting that West had been working on, before deciding whether to recommend the Venetian Secret to the rest of the Academy, and this was the work whose impact Farington anticipated, and which he set about undermining by organizing interested academicians to buy into the secret.
However, it emerged that there was a glitch in the scholarship: the painting at Yale turned out to be a second version of the same subject, also by West, but painted in his usual technique. The original demonstration version now belongs to the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Michael D. Eisner, and the center has been able to borrow it for what is a unique and focused show, concentrating very simply on the two paintings—the one painted according to a method thought up by a possibly mad young woman, in pursuit of the lost secret of the Venetians, the other, as the organizers put it, executed in the artist’s own style, as an act of atonement for the previous aberration.
The stronger painting is undoubtedly the earlier, but one would never guess that it had ever had anything to do with Titian. One can easily see what contemporaries meant when they observed that the process gave an effect like a colored engraving—for of course glazing was indeed a method akin to coloring a black-and-white image (in the manner of endless satirical prints of the day). The difference was that instead of laying color on black and white, one was laying it on a gray tint, rather strongly tinged with blue, which gives in West’s painting a bluish tone to the whole.
This gray tint was (as I understand it) Miss Provis’s Venetian Secret. “Its property,” she says in the Ashmolean document,
was to still and moderate the glare of the Chiaro Scuro, previous to its receiving the Colours ; for besides the unpleasant rawness which it would otherwise have produced, the colouring could scarcely ever have been sufficiently moderated, or brought into those sedate and harmonising tones which are always to be found in beautiful Nature….
The consequence is a quite un-Venetian separation of color from tone.
The immediate consequence of the affair was that Miss Provis became the butt of a ribald song by the painter Paul Sandby, “Old Titians Smutchpan,” in which the academicians take turns having their way with the unfortunate young woman. The same spirit of ribaldry infuses James Gillray’s elaborate caricature Titianus Redivivus (1797), but here it is Miss Provis who gets to tickle the privates of the grotesque image of Titian that she is painting. The song has survived and is given in full in the catalog, which also explains the caricature in full.
The secret did not survive for very long. It is true that during the annual exhibition, in May 1797, the press praised a landscape of Farington which had “adopted the revived practice of Titian.” However, there follows a long lacuna in the diary, which only picks up again in December. So we miss out on the disillusionment. By the end of the year, West’s authority on the subject of Venetian painting was destroyed. He gave a discourse in which he referred to the rules of light, shade, and color, as followed by Titian, Correggio, and the rest. But the Academicians snubbed him, and Farington records savagely that ” No notice was taken of his discourse.” Provis and his daughter disappeared from the scene. No attempt was made to prosecute either of them.
West survived Farington’s maneuvering. His reputation, he was aware, had been built on his compositions, not on his skill as a colorist. I tend to take a more indulgent view of him than the authors of the catalog: he was given to vanity and fantasy, but he was fundamentally well disposed to his fellow artists, and particularly to the Americans who regularly sought him out in London. One of these was John Singleton Copley, who, a mere five years after the secret had exploded, was, according to William Whitley, “full of vain confidence that he had discovered the secret single-handed.” Copley’s son (rather surprisingly, for one born in Boston, he later become First Baron Lyndhurst, and a Tory lord chancellor) wrote, in 1802, to his sister in America that his father’s discovery was more precious than the philosopher’s stone: “Henceforth you may fairly expect that our father’s pictures will transcend the productions even of Titian himself.”
In other words, the pursuit of the Venetian Secret was yet another expression of the American Dream.
February 26, 2009
Titian’s Mistress, later known under the title Lady at Her Toilet, had come to the French royal collection from England; it had belonged to Charles I. ↩
This implies that the secret was lost on Palma il Giovane’s death in 1626 (or 1628?). ↩
Conversations of James Northcote R.A. with James Ward on Art and Artists, edited by Ernest Fletcher (London: Methuen, 1901), p. 65. ↩
William T. Whitley, Artists and Their Friends in England, 1700–1799 (Medici Society, 1928), Vol. 2, p. 211. ↩