Benjamin West and ‘The Venetian Secret’: Art and fraud in late Eighteenth-century London
In this lecture, Angus Trumble will discuss the late eighteenth-century hoax that fooled several prominent British artists and sheds light on a number of intriguing technical and historical issues.
In 1796 Benjamin West, the American-born President of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, fell victim to a remarkable fraud. A shadowy figure, Thomas Provis, and his artist daughter, Ann Jemima Provis, persuaded West that they possessed a copy of an old manuscript purporting to contain descriptions of materials and techniques used by the Venetian painters of the High Renaissance, including Titian, to achieve the famously luminous effects of colour that had long been thought lost, forgotten, or shrouded in secrecy. West experimented with these materials and techniques and used them to execute a history painting entitled Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1796–97). In truth the manuscript was fake and the story an absurd invention. West had believed it, and, through him, the Provises managed to dupe a number of other key artist-Academicians.
When the fraud was finally exposed, the embarrassment was far worse for West than it was for the other victims. It was largely through his influential position as President of the Royal Academy that the perpetrators gained access to so many of his variously hapless, dim-witted, or simply greedy colleagues. Years later, having been mercilessly held up to ridicule by satirists (in song; in the press; and in a remarkable satirical engraving titled Titianus Redivivus (1797) by James Gillray, West painted an almost identical version of Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1804), this time according to his own methods and traditional studio practices. This “atonement” painting is today in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.
A recent exhibition organised by Angus Trumble, Mark Aronson and Helen Cooper, entitled Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret and held at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven in Connecticut, brought together these two versions of West’s ambitious composition, along with x-radiographs and recent technical analysis, and considered the remarkable differences between them in colour and effect. The findings of this remarkably successful exhibition will be discussed in detail by Angus Trumble in his public lecture.