Inscriptions, Monograms, Stamps, Labels

Information on the back of your painting may tell you as much or more about its history than the image itself.

This was all that remained of an exhibition label peeling from the back of the canvas, but enough text survived to tell us that this work was exhibited in the Ontario Society of Artists Annual Exhibition of 1932. When text is fragmentary, the conservator’s experience can help fill in the blanks. I record all the text from labels and stamps in my conservation database to facilitate cross-referencing.

Exhibition and inventory labels, labels from art dealers, restorers and owners are typical kinds of labels found on the back of paintings and picture frames. These inherently fragile attachments may become lost and with them, critical information pertaining to the work’s history. My treatments include assessment and treatment of paper attachments to ensure their preservation. I also attach my own label to the backing board to document that a treatment was undertaken. The owner/person to whom the treatment report was submitted is noted on my label, which may help locate this record in the future. Conservation records should be safely stored by the owner and ideally, passed on with the painting when it leaves their possession.

Artists’ Colourmen Stamps

Artists’ colourmen applied stamps such as the one shown above to stretched canvases in standard sizes. Colourmen stamps may help date an undated painting, or even help identify a forgery if the stamp date does not correspond with the artist’s dates. This stamp of the British artists’ colourmen firm of Winsor & Newton dates to 1884-1904.

Incised Marks

This small, incised mark was found on the back of a Flemish panel painting dated 1636. The painting is anonymous, but the maker of the wood panel on which it is painted was attributed to a famous Flemish craftsman through identification of his distinctive mark.

Signatures and Monograms
Clients are disappointed when a signature is not present or apparent, and lack of artist identification admittedly has a negative effect on market value. Signatures and monograms may be found on the front or back of paintings, and if the work is heavily soiled, may be difficult to see. Signatures which initially appear illegible may sometimes, with prolonged study, become legible; if the first letters may be discerned, you may be assisted with online alphabetical lists of artists’ names.

Monograms of lesser known artists were previously difficult or impossible to identify. Thanks to the internet, monograms may be found in artist’s signature and monogram databases. The order of letters does not need to be known in order to search the database. This monogram belongs to British artist James Lawson Stewart, whose watercolours are found in the collection of the Museum of London.

The stretcher inscription below was the only form of identification on a 19th century British India portrait.  What was the name’s significance….owner?  artist?  sitter?  I eventually determined it was the identity of the sitter, Alexander Fairlie Bruce, born August 1799, a Madras civil servant, and son of Sir William Bruce of Stenhouse, 7th Baronet.

This stretcher inscription is on the British India portrait shown under the “Conservation Framing Methods” section of this site.