A Great Find
He couldn’t believe it. The number of times he walked through that very corridor, past the very same images, time and time again.
It had been sitting there in plain sight, quietly waiting to be discovered. But as he ran to the office to find more proof, he knew no one would ever truly be able to see it.
Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) was like a second home to Michael Varcoe-Cocks. He spent the most of his time there and he simply couldn’t help it.
Not only was the gallery his workplace, but he was also head of conservation. It was no small task. Especially, when he had another special title…
Art was his passion, a passion that led him to become the leading expert in all the galleries’ paintings from the second half of the 19th century. This meant he could walk around the NGV and tell you just about everything behind the paintings on the walls.
But then lockdown hit and the gallery was under threat.
The gallery sat dark and empty for months. But what many people didn’t realize was that this meant the paintings were under serious threat of being damaged by dust.
Dust can have a surprisingly damaging effect on paintings as they attract tiny insects that feed on the particles. Over time, these insects can eat through the surface and fade or remove paint.
But cleaning them was a huge undertaking so all Varcoe-Cocks could do was wander the winding hallways with his flashlight.
The masterpieces took on an eerie tone, like something dark waited within the brush strokes. He turned a corner, and his beam illuminated a striking painting.
It was the Pioneer. Australian artist Frederick McCubbin created it back in 1904.
The three-panel oil painting was and impressionist masterpiece. Varcoe-Cocks had looked on its beauty countless time before, but not under the strange contrast of the flashlight. There, right in the middle panel, was an odd texture.
Passage Of Time
The green and brown hues, laced with faded purples, showed a husband and wife living off the land with their infant son. But the hidden lines within the brush strokes didn’t match the panel’s subject.
Varcoe-Cocks heart began to pound. How had he never noticed this before?
Varcoe-Cocks leaned in closer. Lifting his torch up to the painting, he looked at it on a slant. There was definitely an odd texture.
He ran to the other two paintings Frederick McCubbin created that were closeby. He looked carefully to see if they had the same texture – they didn’t. Varcoe-Cocks rushed into action.
He hurried to the archives – a place he had special access to because of his prestigious role in the gallery.
There were x-rays of everything they displayed, and he quickly flipped through the files. His heart beat with frantic excitement. A shocking discovery was at his fingertips. He could feel it.
As Varcoe-Cocks scoured through the files, he wondered what it was he had stumbled across. There have been many incredible finds within old paintings in recent years. Often, they made the paintings even more valuable.
But then again, there were also discoveries that didn’t. They were Varcoe-Cocks’ worst nightmare.
One of the biggest horror stories a gallery can have is discovering details in a famous painting that reveal it to be a fake or worse – a smuggling container.
Suddenly, Varcoe-Cocks hesitated. What if this discovery negatively affected their business? His stomach knotted with fear. But he couldn’t stop now.
He found the file. The x-ray showed a strange series of lines he had never noticed before. He ran his fingers over the image, trying to figure out what it meant.
Something felt familiar about it – like a memory floating just out of reach, taunting him. He was just about to grab a copy of McCubbin’s scrapbook when he heard a noise.
Varcoe-Cocks jumped at the sudden unexpected noise. He wasn’t expecting anyone else to be at the gallery. He heard footsteps coming towards him.
The footsteps were heavy. Whoever it was, they were walking fast and determined. Varcoe-Cocks quickly stuffed McCubbin’s scrapbook in his bag. The door opened.
Varcoe-Cocks didn’t want anyone to know about what he had found yet. Not until he knew exactly what he was dealing with. Only then would he determine how he should address it.
His mind raced as he searched for a cover story. Varcoe-Cocks looked up to see a security man flashing his torch around the room. “Who’s there?”, he demanded.
“Colin! It’s just me. What are you doing here? I thought you’d all be in lockdown”, Varcoe-Cocks asked. The man was visibly relieved to see him. “Phew man! I thought we had a break-in. Yeh, I thought I’d check the place out, make sure everything is as it should be”, he replied.
“You too? Looks like we think the same. I’m just sorting through these files. I meant to organize them ages ago”, Varcoe-Cocks said.
It was part of his office space after all. The excuse made perfect sense until he heard. “In the dark?”. Varcoe-Cocks looked at him. His mind raced as he said, “Yeh, the main switch isn’t on right? So I’ve no electricity” .
The man reached over to the light switch and flipped it on. He chuckled and left. Varcoe-Cocks continued his nerve-wrecking investigation.
Somehow, he knew he had seen these lines before. The painting in question already had something special about it; in the third panel, McCubbin had repainted the far-off cityscape to an image of Melbourne so it would be easier to sell.
It was a detail that excited art enthusiasts everywhere but it seemed that this painting was still withholding something else. Something far bigger.
Varcoe-Cocks could tell that whatever was underneath the paint was resting on the second panel. He just knew it had another secret, just begging to get out.
Varcoe-Cocks retrieved the scrapbook and carefully turned the pages. He didn’t know what he was searching for – just a vague idea or memory. Then, there it was.
Putting It Together
Varcoe-Cocks paused. He gently brushed his fingers over the rough portrait sketch. The image was gripping. No wonder he hadn’t forgotten about it.
His heart began to pound as he put one and one together. He looked at the date the sketch was created and studied the curve of every line. Could it really be?
It was called “Found” – a heartbreaking painting of a bushman finding a lost girl in the forest.
It was in the scrapbook, but the original was thought to be lost for over a hundred years. The outlines matched exactly. The missing painting had been in the gallery the entire time! But why underneath?
It’s not an uncommon practice for artists to reuse their canvases.
However, back then, it was far more frequent because they were more expensive, and artist couldn’t always afford fresh ones for each new painting. Even Picasso did it. Varcoe-Cocks couldn’t believe it! He also couldn’t believe the circumstances.
Tell The World
It was a rare mix of events.
First the lockdown, then the security walk in the dark, and just happening to have a flashlight at the right angle – not to mention the expertise to know something was off. He quickly printed out a digital overlay and emailed everyone who needed to know. The find exploded across the art world.
Good And Bad
This came with some good and bad news.
First, the masterpiece received a new flood of interest from the public. This thrilled Varcoe-Cocks. He loved nothing more than to see the same excitement in guests’ eyes as when he found something amazing in the art world. The bad news?
Part Of History
There was no way for them to recover the old masterpiece without destroying the one on top.
McCubbin had a habit of finishing the painting’s base and then wiping addition oil hues on top until he got the look he wanted. The only thing they had was the outline, texture, and scrapbook image.
Loving His Job
Still, even though Varcoe-Cocks worked in a field full of amazing discoveries, he knew how lucky he was to have been part of a new one.
Now, every time he walks by those three panels, his smile is a little wider than before.