By Brian Green
Rembrandt’s masterpiece, Girl at a Window painted in 1645 which is showcasing the new exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery - Reframed: The Woman in the Window, is not all what it seems. Its history is even more mysterious than the identity of the girl herself.
Between 1945 and 1946 the painting, which had been safely stored in the vaults of the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth during the Second World War, was cleaned by Dr Johannes Hell, a picture restorer and an expert on Rembrandt’s work. Favoured by the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Gerald Kelly, and recommended by the Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, Anthony Blunt, Dr Hell found that a later hand had painted a green curtain in the background of Girl at a Window. Kelly said at the re-opening of the Gallery after it was partially rebuilt and restored after war damage in 1953, that “Behind her was a foolish green curtain so regular and insensitive that it looked like a coil of hot water pipes. This came away and revealed Rembrandt’s original background.” And that is not all. Kate Hell, the restorer’s wife later wrote that when her husband cleaned the picture the girl at a window was shown to have blue eyes, rather than the brown before the cleaning took place.
Nor was Dr Hell afterwards free from care of this work. In the early hours of New Year’s Day,1967, a band of South London art thieves stole to order eight of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s most prized works. It was, at the time, the biggest art theft in history. A team of twenty-one detectives recovered the stolen pictures within a couple of days, following a tip-off. Five were found wrapped in a brown paper parcel under a bush in The Rookery, Streatham Common. The remaining three, Girl at a window, and Portrait of Titus also by Rembrandt, which had been cut from their frames with a knife specially bought by Michael Hall aged 32, the only one of the thieves to be caught, were found at his home on Knight’s Hill, together with The Three Graces by Rubens. Apart from the two paintings which had been cut from their frames, the others were undamaged.
Dr Hell was immediately summoned to repair the damage to the two Rembrandts. Girl at a Window’ was restored within a couple of months and displayed in a newspaper photograph between Johannes Hell and Gerald Kelly at the Gallery on 3rd March 1967. Kelly took the opportunity of all the publicity to successfully appeal for funds for the Gallery.
Michael Hall was sentenced at the Old Bailey to 5 years in prison. Many years later he claimed that seven of the pictures were stolen to order at the request of a Polish couple who offered £100,000 for them. He also said that an English collector of Rembrandts had offered £30,000 for the artist’s portrait of Jacob III de Gheyn. Hall made several reconnaissance visits to the gallery prior to the robbery both to identify the pictures and look for an entry point. In 1981, Michael Hall said that the Polish couple had disappeared and that the English collector had emigrated to Australia. After his release from prison in 1970 he returned to Dulwich Picture Gallery and gave advice on security, saying that trip wires should be fixed to the backs of the pictures and wired to an alarm. For this advice, which the Gallery at the time failed to take (Rembrandt’s, portrait of Jacob III de Gheyn would be stolen - and recovered - twice more), Hall was presented by the Gallery with a reproduction of Girl at a Window, which he proudly displayed in his tiny flat in Lansdowne Way. He soon returned to art theft and was caught red-handed. He was sentenced to a further seven years in prison. In 1981, in an interview in the South London Press, Hall said that after his release from prison the second time, in 1974, that he had renounced crime and had since worked as a security guard in Kings Cross “and devotes a lot of his time to Age Concern”.