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Lara Wardle, 20th century British art specialist, takes a look behind the art in this week's blog and explores what stories the back of a painting can reveal.

I’ve always liked looking at the backs of pictures. They can reveal so much about the artist, the work and its history.

Of course the front of the painting (the ‘recto’) is what the artist intended to be looked at and thought about. It is what the work really is about after all. In most situations it is all that you can see, and this is how it should be. It would be a strange and disappointing exhibition to find works hung the wrong way round. In any case, so much can be deduced from the front of the painting itself. However, that is a subject for another blog, and for now I want to think about the other side.

It is the back of the work (the ‘verso’) that answers questions and sometimes provokes more. I used to appraise 20th century British paintings for an international auction house and on viewing a work at a client’s house, I would always ask to take it off the wall and have a good look at the back.

Depending on how the work is framed and whether it is on paper, panel or on canvas, you can sometimes see the back of the artist’s material, and whether they have signed, dated and written the title of the work on the back or on the frame. Some artists, including Ben Nicholson, have beautiful handwriting, always inscribing their works and making it easy to catalogue and record. John Piper’s handwriting, on the other hand, is much harder to decipher.

Clues about condition and previous restoration can be seen on the reverse. Does the work have a tell-tale overlap of canvas that might suggest that it has been relined? Although a light tap to the back can sometimes reveal this. The canvas might have a patch on the back which would suggest a tear and any retouching will probably be seen under UV light.

Is the work in its original frame? Have labels on the back been cut through and misaligned or attached in plastic envelopes? If it has been reframed, why and when did this happen?

Has the work been sold through an auction house? This is denoted by chalk marks or stencilled letters and numbers on the frame.

Who has bought, owned, inherited or sold the work in its lifetime?

Where has it travelled? Has the work been extensively loaned or exhibited? If it has, exhibition labels often include details of the owner. This can lead me to wondering what else was held in that collection or what other works or artists were included in the exhibition. Was the work illustrated in the exhibition catalogue and has it been written about previously?

The answers to these questions help to fill in its history and I begin to know the work. Then I have another good long look at the front. 


Images (top to bottom): Reverse side of Michael Ayrton, Susannah and the Elders, 1945-47 © the estate of Michael Ayrton; Reverse side of Margaret Mellis, Woman and Fish II, 1957 © the estate of Margaret Mellis 

28 March, 2014
Written by Lara Wardle