Roberson's stamp
Roberson’s stamp

By looking at the back of a painting, you can learn a lot about its history. The back canvas layer of Ophelia was removed when the painting was lined in 1967 and the canvas and the information were closely recorded and preserved. In the photograph above, we can see the trademark stamp of Charles Roberson, the colourman from whom Millais bought his canvas. It has been applied as a stencil. This can help us date a painting. By seeing this stamp on the back of the painting, researchers were able to trace the archives of Charles Roberson and find out how much Millais paid for the canvasses and when he bought them (15 shillings).

The back of the painting can also show us the history of where the painting has travelled and who owned it. When a painting is loaned to other galleries often a stamp is attached to the back of the canvas (see image below). We can see that it used to be the property of the National Gallery. The Tate Gallery was originally part of the National Gallery although in a separate building at Millbank.

Labels removed from the back of Ophelia

Labels removed from the back of Ophelia

© Tate, London 2003

At the top left of the photograph, we can see that the painting appeared in the 1898 exhibition at the Royal Academy Winter Exhibition. Beside this there is the original purchase stamp of the canvas from Charles Roberson & Company. We can also see a darkened label with the words: ‘Farrer, H., Wardour Street, Soho “Ophelia”, By J. E. Millais, A. R. A. which indicates one of Ophelia’s original owners. There is a City of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery stamp (which perhaps relates to the 1947 loan); a Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool label which relates to the 1967 exhibition which began in London at The Royal Academy, the stamp for which can also be seen.

The James Bourlet & Sons Ltd. stamp shows us that one of the museums used this fine art packing company and frame makers to pack and transport this work of art. Not included in this photograph but also removed from the back canvas of Ophelia was a stamp from the British Council of 1972.

Tate rarely lends Ophelia as so many people come from all over the world expecting to see it. It has been popular since the gallery first opened in 1897.