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Fake or Fortune? Northumbria decides

29th August 2018

A Northumbria University scientist will help prove a famous painting’s authenticity on the hit BBC show Fake or Fortune.

Dr Kate Nicholson’s forensic expertise will be put to the test when the show airs on Sunday 2nd September at 8pm on BBC 1.

Kate will join presenter Fiona Bruce and art dealer Philip Mould to investigate a rare portrait from the 18th century featuring people of colour in a prominent role. Both paintings investigated in this episode are highly unusual in their positive depiction of black portrait subjects at a time when Britain was still heavily engaged in slavery.

The show’s producers hope that new forensic and documentary evidence will reveal the artists who broke with the conventions of the time to paint these exceptional works.

Kate said: “We used a number of forensic art techniques such as x-ray fluorescence, reflectance spectroscopy and gas chromatography–mass spectrometry to allow both the composition of the pigments and the binder to be identified.

“The process - including field sampling and analysis back at the lab - took two days. We are the only group in the country that can be mobile and analyse paintings in situ anywhere in the world. Other places require the sample to be brought back to the lab, but just moving some of these paintings can cost millions of pounds.”

The first painting is a double portrait featuring Dido Belle, a former slave who became a member of the aristocratic Mansfield family. The painting is on display at Scone Palace in Scotland and was commissioned by the first Lord Mansfield, Dido Belle's guardian, sometime in the late 1770s or early 1780s at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In recent years, Belle's incredible story has inspired books and a feature film about her life. Now the current Lady Mansfield is determined to discover the name of the artist who painted her.

The second painting is even more unusual - two beautifully dressed black girls holding a book in what appears to be a tropical landscape. Early clues suggest this could be a political painting somehow connected to the campaign to abolish slavery in Britain's colonies.

The quest to solve both mysteries throws up some prime suspects from a golden era of British portraiture and all will be revealed during Sunday night’s show.

Northumbria’s specialism in both the Conservation of Fine Art and in Chemistry means the University has a strong track record of analysing art for conservation. Kate, who has worked at Northumbria since 2015, is currently writing a book called ‘Medieval Pigment use in Manuscripts of the British Isles’ and has analysed famous works including the Lindisfarne Gospels, during her career.

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