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Restoration reveals hidden whale in 17th-century Dutch painting

Mysterious artwork at Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum showing people clustered on beach had huge creature painted over.

The startling truth has just been revealed, after the conservator Shan Kuang took a delicate scalpel to a painting which has been in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge for the past 140 years. She first uncovered a baffling figure of man apparently standing in mid air, and then gradually revealed that he was standing on the great hillock of a beached whale, washed up on the shallows.

Neither the curators nor Kuang have been able to trace any earlier reference to the whale, or to the overpainting that sank it. Kuang can't date the extra layer of paint, much more crudely applied than the original, though she suspects it may be 18th century and done because an owner thought the subject matter repellent, or a dealer thought the picture would sell better without a great dead animal taking up the middle ground. The varnish of the beach scene had yellowed and become unsightly, but as she removed it the mid air man appeared, beside what appeared to be a sail. She could also see that a stretch of the sea was clearly a later addition. There was a long debate among the experts about the potential risk of damaging the painting before she proceeded to remove the overpainting, using a scalpel and solvents, working on tiny areas under a microscope.