A revelatory exhibition at the Barber Institute presents the sumptuous work of Jan de Beer, forgotten master of the Northern Renaissance
In 1789, a Northern Renaissance altarpiece of a Virgin and Child appeared in the sale catalogue of an English collection. Said to have once belonged to a private chapel near Padua, the large triptych was unsigned but described by the catalogue’s author as “the undoubted original of a great master”, probably Holbein.
The picture didn’t sell, but it did change hands 11 years later for more than £15, then a sizeable sum, and by 1820 – now reattributed to Dürer – it entered the collection of the second Earl of Radnor at Longford Castle, where it did the rounds before coming to rest in the chapel. In 1909, reascribed to Herri met de Bles, it was promoted to the Long Picture Gallery.
By 1915 the German art historian, Max Friedländer, had become convinced that the picture’s author was none of the above, but the artist formerly known as the Master of the Milan Adoration after an anonymous Adoration of the Magi in the Pinacoteca di Brera. In 1933 Friedländer noticed that one of the faces in a masterly sketch of nine male heads in the British Museum appeared in the role of St Joseph in the Milan Adoration, and again in a painting of Joseph and the Suitors (c.1520-21) by the same hand, now in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham. The sketch was signed on the back “Jan de Beer”.