Philip Mould’s Sleuth is in British bookstores. In support of the book, he’s telling some of his dinner-party stories in the Telegraph to get the juices flowing:
From a really young age, we learn to read faces. They have a language and can articulate themselves with nuance in a way that nothing else in the world around us can quite reach. The way an artist paints a face is highly distinctive, and portraiture tells you far more about the artist than it does about the subject. Get to know the vernacular of one artist’s face compared to another, and you can use that knowledge to hunt down other examples.
I once bought a painting described as “American school, 19th century” on eBay for $200. The features were engaging, well modelled and arresting; the body was boring, inelegant and anatomically uncomfortable. Looking further at the way the paint was applied to the mouth and eyes, I could see it had all the hallmarks of an early Gainsborough. I restored it myself – for the first and last time in my career – and sold it on for a fortune. […]
Another painting I bought was an exquisite example of how history dovetails with art. It was a full-length portrait of Elizabeth I on sale for a huge amount of money – £2.6 million – at Sotheby’s. Short of storming the Royal Collection, I believed it to be the only chance I’d get in my life to buy a monumental royal portrait.
I was also convinced I had a bargain: to my eye, the painting contained a thrilling coded message to her lover, Dudley, in the form of oak leaves, twinned fruit and vegetables in the background. Elizabeth I, feeling a degree of effrontery about being pressurised into taking a husband and producing an heir, was saying: “I am fruitful, I am bountiful.”
I remember standing back in the auction house and suddenly comprehending its potential. This picture was known to be important, but it seemed to me a highly charged political document, one with a pivotal significance to British constitutional history. It is now on loan to Hampton Palace.