Seeing the Wood for the Trees

From Hospital
Dear Dr Starkey, I broke my leg a week ago and have been in constant pain... God knows what went wrong with Professor X's findings. He looks as clever as Aristotle and as kind as Plato... The first reading he got was 1470; then 1506; and (finally) 1550. I am certain my picture is by Holbein and no other... Greetings from an old and very broken old man.

A fortnight later the writer was dead – of the effects of a broken heart, I suspect, as much as a broken leg. He was 'certain' his picture was by Holbein. But science, personified by that Aristotle-Plato of the archaeological laboratory, had said that the wooden panel it was painted on dated from at least seven years after Holbein's death.

The owner was not the only disappointed man. I had first chanced on photographs of the picture in museum files in June 1978. But I had come up against a blank wall when I tried to trace the original. Then, years later and out of the blue (or rather in a blue folder), I received an anonymous letter. It was written in a forceful, old-fashioned hand that I soon came to know well; phrased just as strikingly and quirkily, and signed 'a very old Irishman'. The letter described the missing picture, under which indeed it claimed to be written.

Patience had had its reward. Indeed my cup was soon running over as all sorts of things started to fit together. The picture appeared unfinished; now it was easy to see why: the sitter had died suddenly from the sweating sickness, and at about the same time Holbein had returned to Basel at the end of his first visit to England. The sitter, and a second sitter who appeared as an underpainting, also suggested exciting things about the sort of circle in which Holbein was moving when he played truant from More's perhaps too idyllic household. But all this was dashed as well by Professor X's findings.

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