THE art world was agog with excitement three years ago when a painting in a Scots stately home was identified as possible masterpiece by the Italian Renaissance genius Raphael.

Dr Bendor Grosvenor, presenter of the BBC’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, made the claim about the painting, which hangs in Haddo House, near Ellon in Aberdeenshire, in a programme broadcast in 2016.

But now it seems his enthusiasm may have been misplaced as specialist advisers supporting conservation charity the National Trust for Scotland have expressed doubts that the “Haddo Madonna” is by Raphael.

Grosvenor’s theory created worldwide attention and, in the aftermath, the Trust’s head curatorial and conservation services, Jennifer Melville, and her colleagues arranged for the painting to be taken to the National Gallery in London for examination.

This followed tests that the producers had previously commissioned for the TV programme which included examination of the paints used and the wooden panel on which they were applied (which would have been used at the time, rather than canvas).

In London, in an attempt to verify whether Grosvenor’s theory was correct, in-depth examination of the “under drawing” and composition were carried out and compared against known Raphael works.

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The National Gallery’s conclusion is that the painting, although very fine, is not likely to be by the hand of Raphael, but may instead be an 18th-century Italian work by an unknown artist.

Other conservators and expert art historians think that the Haddo Madonna might be a 16th century work, but perhaps not actually by Raphael, whereas others suggest that it may be by an artist of the Bolognese School, which was strongly influenced by Raphael.

Melville said: “In trying to prove a theory, we have instead created a puzzle.

“While I agree the painting is probably not by Raphael, further research is needed – for example, to identify the wax seals that are on the back of the wooden panel and which may indicate a previous owner or be a clever piece of trickery.

“It will be fascinating to research the work’s provenance further, as the history of the picture’s ownership will add to our current understanding of this very fine painting.”

The National:

Dr Bendor Grosvenor and Britain's Lost Masterpieces co-host Jacky Klein at Haddo House

Melville explained her conclusions at a talk delivered at Haddo House last night.

She said: “Raphael’s known Madonnas have a distinctive tactile interaction with the Christ Child, whereas the pose here, where the Madonna is seen to be adoring the Christ Child who, if the panel had not been cut down (or gives the impression of having been cut down) would appear below her to the lower right of the composition.

“The decorative play of hands and arms, which is a distinctive feature of Raphael’s known Madonna and Child compositions and introduced a new tenderness and human element to these religious paintings, is absent here.

“This is a more formal ‘adoration’, as seen in the art of a slightly earlier generation, by such artists as Bellini, Botticelli and Raphael’s teacher Perugino and this may point us in fascinating directions as to where this painting really came from.”

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While the story of the Madonna is neither definitive nor proven, there are more mysteries to be solved and more research needed into how the Gordon family acquired the painting for Haddo House in the early 19th century.

Melville added: “Whether or not Bendor’s theory is the right one, he has done us a great service in helping us to understand the ‘Haddo Madonna’ better.

“It has also been an opportunity to show how curatorship and technical conservation work together to uncover truths, why provenance is so important and what specialists bring to a debate.”

The painting is back at Haddo, which is home to an extensive collection of art, including 85 paintings of Aberdeenshire castles by acclaimed Victorian artist James Giles.