Mystery solved: unknown soldier was painted by his mother


A portrait of a sad-eyed young soldier has been released from museum stores after members of the public succeeded in identifying the young officer and the heartbroken artist – his mother.

However, argument still rages over the identity of a woman in a handsome black dress and whether an imposing mill building is really in Manchester, or built under much hotter skies.

project invites the public to join forces with museum curators, art historians and costume experts to identify mystery paintings: more than 100 debates are currently rumbling on. Amateur local historians, genealogists, map collectors and devotees of the yellowing pages of centuries-old regional newspapers chip in snippets of knowledge that often lead to genuine revelations – a watercolour puzzlingly titled Margate in the Time of Turner, owned by Kirklees Museum, was recently triumphantly identified as a work by Walter Sickert, inspired by a print in an 1852 copy of Leisure Hour magazine.

The project was launched three years ago on the back of the , which set out to record and catalogue every painting in public collections in the UK – more than 210,000 works in 3,000 locations to date. As paintings were hauled out of stores or dark civic corridors to be photographed for the first time, some masterpieces and many puzzles turned up. Often there was no record of the artists, what the paintings represented, or when – or indeed why – they had come into the collections.

Portrait of a Lady in a Black Dress with a Cameo on a Red Ribbon, by unknown artist. Photograph: Peterhouse, University of Cambridge

The portrait of the young man is owned by Carmarthenshire museums, but catalogued Unknown First World War Officer, there was little interest in the picture and it went into storage. However, when it appeared on the Detectives website, Martin Gillott tracked down a newspaper obituary with a photograph and the war records, which proved the mystery man was 2nd Lt Paul Chancourt Girardo. He signed up in February 1914 and was killed in September with 43 other members of his company, and 50 men from the company they were relieving, when a shell exploded in the French quarry where they were resting. He was 19.

That discovery led to another member of the public identifying the artist as Mary Girardot, from Carmarthenshire. She was a widow and when she painted the portrait of her only son, he was already dead. She also commissioned a memorial stained glass window at Holy Trinity in Kensington in west London, near their home, which poignantly shows the same soldier with the barely out of adolescence wispy moustache.

Bendor Grosvenor, the art historian and star of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune?, says the site brings together a range of skills from amateurs and professionals, which can lead to genuine revelations. The young lieutenant is his favourite to date. “Suddenly, a painting that nobody paid much attention to became an item of heartrending sensitivity,” he said.

Unidentified Mill Scene, c.1820–1825, by British (English) School. Photograph: Manchester Art Gallery

There is still no consensus about the woman in the black dress – or on the artist, date of the painting, identity of the subject, her age, or why she ended up in Peterhouse college in Cambridge. Some have seen a pre-Raphaelite influence in her calm direct gaze, others think the painting is earlier.

Several people have seen an engagement portrait because of the prominently displayed ring, others have seen a wedding band as well on her finger. Some thought the vase of flowers suggested she was a botanist, others that she was wearing Victorian mourning dress – promptly disputed as the elaborate lace collar, large brooch and red ribbon would be unsuitably frivolous. It was suggested that she was a college benefactor, or the wife, sister or daughter of some college notable. One mournful suggestion was that “a Fellow with rooms in College where portraits of his own family were hanging died without any close relations and left a will in which he left much or all of what he had to the College”. Whoever she was, she came briefly into the light for a college dinner in 2015 and then went back into store.

There is equal dispute over the street scene with a background of an imposing building topped with a belfry, a painting Manchester City Galleries acquired in 1938 on the understanding that it showed Holt Town in the city, a group of mills built by David Quaker Holt. Those joining in the argument cannot even agree whether it is really a mill building – some see it as a cotton warehouse because it lacks the usual towering smoking chimneys.

The art detectives have pored over every detail, from the man’s white trousers to the shape of the basket and the construction of the cart. Sites have been suggested ranging from Stockport and Chorlton-upon-Medlock, to Morocco and New Orleans – “the hats on some of the men seem more of the American ‘ten gallon’ type whist others appeared to derive from British ‘topper’ models suggesting “British Colonial’,” one wrote. The game is still afoot.