Mystery of The Lady in the Fur Wrap takes a novel twist

For more than a century it has remained one of the art world’s biggest mysteries – did 16th Century Spanish master El Greco really paint the iconic work The Lady in a Fur Wrap?

Friday, 4th September 2020, 11:49 am
Michael Gallagher was inspired by stories of his childhood growing up near Pollok House as he wrote Jamie's Keepsake

Last year experts appeared to have settled the dispute, judging the oil painting - housed at Glasgow’s Pollok House - to have been the work of lesser known Spanish artist Alonso Sánchez Coello.

The disputed provenance of the painting – which at one time was valued at £20m and has been displayed at some of the world’s most prestigious museums, including the Louvre in Paris and the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid – is the subject of a new crime novel by Glasgow author, Michael Gallagher.

While the plot for Jamie’s Keepsake is fictional, much of the narrative is based on actual events from Michael’s childhood in early 1970s Glasgow.

It involves a daring raid on Pollok House by youngsters from a nearby housing scheme after they simultaneously discover the value of the painting and the lax security in place to protect it.

One of the group persuades a friend’s brother – a talented artist who has recently flunked out of Glasgow School of Art – to paint a convincing copy of the work, which they plan to substitute for the original by breaking into the mansion under cover of darkness.

The painting was bought by Sir William Stirling Maxwell for £1857 in 1853. The industrialist kept the painting at his family home in Pollok Estate, where it remains. In 1966 it was gifted to the city.

The main conceit of the novel is that the masterpiece now in the possession of Glasgow Museums, which has been the subject of ongoing controversy and detailed scientific analysis for the past 50 years, is not the work of El Greco or Sánchez Coello but Coggie Coghlan’s big brother, Nathan, a drop-out art student from Pollok.

The original is likely under lock and key in the home of a wealthy collector somewhere in the world after being flogged on the black market.

Michael, who turned to writing following a career as an industrial safety engineer, said the

characters are based on friends from childhood whose real-life antics inspired the plot.

He said: “As a young teenager I remember stories of local boys pilfering ancient treasures from dusty storage crates that were destined for the Burrell Museum in the nearby Pollok Park. This gave me the idea for the book.

“While the plot to steal The Lady in a Fur Wrap is the sort of thing that could have happened, given how non-existent security was around those hugely valuable artefacts at the time.”

He added: “I became interested in the painting several years later after talking to a guide at Pollok

House.

“She was very knowledgeable about the painting and she couldn’t understand why it was being attributed to El Greco, when his signed work was obviously so different, such as the drab Portrait of an Old Man, also in Pollok House. There were also several news stories on the ‘mystery’ of the painting that caught my attention.”

The recent judgement on the provenance of the painting followed technical examinations carried out by experts at the Prado museum and later at Glasgow University and Glasgow Museums.

They compared the work to others by El Greco and those of other contemporary artists including carrying out a detailed technical analysis of its surface and an examination of microscopic samples.

Among their findings was the discovery that the ground layer of the painting was light grey, which was inconsistent with other works by El Greco who always primed his works with a layer of brownish-red.

Michael, who grew-up in Hardridge on the edge of Pollok Park and left school at 15 to become an apprentice welder at Scott-Lithgow shipyard in Govan, said the judgment simply added to the intrigue of his novel.

He said: “I happen to know that Coggie’s brother always used a grey ground layer so perhaps the experts didn’t consider the possibility that the work they were examining wasn’t the original

bought by Sir John Stirling Maxwell, but a fake.

“No, seriously, it’s just a bit of fun but it’s based on real research as well as extrapolations from my own bank of memories, so hopefully I’ve fulfilled my wish which was to produce a work of fiction with an authentic feel.”

Jamie’s Keepsake, published by L.A Printing Press, is available on Amazon Priced £7.94 in paperback and £5.99 on Kindle.