SSN Research Bursary report: Frans Hals's Portrait of a Gentleman

I'm delighted to present our first guest article from SSN member Pippa Stephenson. 

In June 2015, Pippa received an SSN research bursary which enabled her to travel to Holland to investigate the work of Frans Hals and to promote understanding of the painting Portrait of a Gentleman in Glasgow's Burrell Collection.

Pippa Stephenson was formerly a National Gallery curatorial trainee based at the Laing Art Gallery, and is now Curator of European Art at Glasgow Museums. 

The SSN provides bursaries to fund research focusing on pre-1900 European paintings. We advertise the bursary in the autumn every year, but are happy to discuss proposals at any time. Read further on our Bursaries page.  


Frans Hals SSN bursary research trip, May 2015
Pippa Stephenson

PIppa stephenson

"In May 2015, I organised a week-long research trip to Holland. This trip was intended with two main research aims in mind: firstly, to investigate up-close the work of Frans Hals through important, autograph examples at key organisations, and secondly, to personally introduce the Burrell painting to key scholars working in the field of Frans Hals, noting their reactions and opinions.

Receiving the SSN research bursary provided an excellent starting point for the project, and a way of setting aside the time I would come to spend on the project. After an initial period studying the documents in the object file at the Burrell Collection, I arranged detailed photography of the painting, including a series of macro shots, as well as infra-red and ultra-violet photographs. This helped enormously with my trip to Holland, allowing me to show extremely detailed photographs of the painting to scholars on an iPad, and being able to make these available for the scholars after my research visit via email for future reference.

I introduced the project to our Paintings Conservation Department, who promptly arranged for X-ray photography via a Glasgow hospital (we have no X-ray facilities in museums across Scotland). These were also digitised, and taken on my research trip.


I set about arranging appointments with key organisations across Holland - Dr Anna Tummers, Curator at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, Pieter Roelofs, Curator of Dutch 17th Century Paintings at the Rijksmuseum, and Quentin Buvelot, Senior Curator of Paintings together with Sabina Meloni, Paintings Conservator, at the Mauritshuis. I also arranged to spend three days at the RKD - Nederlands Instituut voor Kunstgeschiedenis (RKD- the Dutch Institute of Art History).

The research trip allowed me to meet these key contacts, sharing images of our work and describing its provenance and absence from Hals literature since the 1970s. It was enormously beneficial to be able to meet these figures in person, hearing their impressions of the work and receiving advice for new research angles. It was also helpful to have the chance to investigate paintings and work related to their collections together: Anna Tummers pointed out works from the Hals Museum that showed certain similarities to the Burrell Hals, particularly in the large Militia portraits, while Sabina Meloni and Quentin Buvelot explained technical research undertaken at the Mauritshuis.

Spending time at the RKD was extremely useful as I had the chance to go through the many boxes containing images of works attributed to Hals. This allowed me to pick out certain features that matched the Burrell Hals, and I compiled a huge series of notes detailing key works for comparison. It was also useful to investigate the files listing works that were formerly attributed to Hals and now thought to be by followers or copyists. While at the RKD, I was shown a series of documents related to the de Wild family of restorers, who we believe worked on the Burrell Hals in the late 1930s/1940s. This was a very useful resource to explore.

The SSN bursary funded my accommodation in an apartment for the duration of my research visit. Having this space gave me the freedom to work in the evenings in a comfortable environment, ideal for consolidating notes after my daily trips to the Hague, Haarlem or the Rijksmuseum.

After my research trip, I met our head of Painting Conservation, Polly Smith, several times. We went through the notes made in Holland, and looked very closely at the Burrell Hals. We looked closely at retouchings and attempted to establish a sequence of painting, examining the work under microscope. Having the knowledge of techniques typical of Hals, gleaned through up-close study of paintings by Hals in Holland, and the intense study at the RKD, gave me confidence looking at our Hals, determining which areas looked like the work of the master, and which less so.

In September 2015, Polly Smith and I visited Edinburgh to see the Scottish National Gallery’s collection of works by Hals, particularly the splendid ‘Portrait of a Gentleman’ from about 1643, a work created at a similar time to when we think the Burrell Hals was painted. We met Tico Seifert, Curator of Dutch and Flemish paintings. This was a great opportunity to see a very fine example of a signature Hals, having spent the last six months looking closely at the Burrell Hals. This allowed Polly and me to identify further areas for investigation back in the Glasgow painting conservation studios.  The following month, Tico visited Glasgow Museums, and we were joined by Peter Black from the Hunterian Museum and Jantien Black, an independent art translator and historian, along with Victor Alers a placement student from Utrecht University. This presented a wonderful opportunity to discuss the Burrell Hals, examining the work in the flesh, and sharing opinions.

In October 2015, I was invited to present my work on the Burrell Hals at the annual Glasgow Museums Research Day, held at the Burrell Collection. I gave a 20 minute presentation to an audience of around a hundred, consisting of both colleagues and external invitees. This presented a useful opportunity to discuss the research I carried out in Holland, and subsequent studies. Later that month, I carried out a longer presentation for the Friends of Glasgow Museums, discussing the Burrell Hals.

In January 2016 I discovered that I had made a successful bid to discuss the Burrell Hals at the annual Codart meeting (Codart is an international organisation of Dutch and Flemish Curators), which was held in Madrid in June 2016. The conference allowed me the platform to discuss the Burrell Hals at the ‘Speaker’s Corner’, describing the research carried out on the painting. Through my presentation, I was able to disseminate information and images of the painting to a wide, scholarly community, a central aim for the project from the outset.

In Spring 2016, the painting was confirmed as a suitable dissertation topic for a Technical Art History Masters student from Glasgow University. This project is fully supervised by our Conservation Department and Dr Mark Richter of the Technical Art History Department at Glasgow University. Careful sample testing is currently being analysed: an important step in further understanding of the Burrell Hals. 

I am continuing research into the painting, and planning to co-write a paper with colleagues, incorporating results from the aforementioned technical research project, and work that myself and Polly Smith have undertaken on the painting. 

The SSN bursary provided key support for this project. Aside from the financial assistance, it provided an impetus for arranging new photography and X-ray images of the work, and allowed me the opportunity to meet scholars in the Netherlands, making important new contacts. Spending time in front of important Hals paintings at the Rijksmuseum, Mauritshuis and Frans Hals Museums, along with files at the RKD, enabled me to get to know the work of Frans Hals much more intimately, and gave me the tools and knowledge to progress with an in-depth study of the Burrell Hals, one which continues to grow and evolve. The final aim for this project is to provide up-to-date information to inform a new display of the work upon the 2020 reopening of the Burrell Collection, allowing our visitors to discover the fascinating story behind Burrell’s most expensive purchase, as well as learning why it is generally considered to be a work by the great master, or not. Funding from the SSN has already helped us to go a long way towards achieving this goal."