Since it was first shown in 1937, Still Life with Vase and Books has been owned by some of Scotland’s greatest art collectors, including Burrell Collection founder Sir William Burrell.
But it seems none of them knew there was another work on the back of the canvas – a “beautiful, finished still life”, according to experts.
Peploe is known to have reused canvases by painting on both sides to save materials. When Still Life with Vase and Books was sent for auction, staff at Christie’s examined it closely by what they call “hilling” – removing the back to check for inscriptions. But they found an entire new painting.
“The current owner didn’t even know it was there. It was quite a nice surprise,” said Christie’s Scottish pictures expert Andre Zlattinger.
Still Life with Vase and Books has a striking mix of whitened blues and purples, and an aspidistra plant, which is often seen in Peploe’s studio works. The picture on the reverse is almost more typical, depicting bright roses, oranges, and a fan, and may have been painted earlier.
However, art dealer Patrick Bourne played down the benefits of a two-for-one canvas.
He said: “I always find it a distraction having a picture with paintings on both sides, unless you discover the one on the back is much better than the one on the front.
“The artist will have decided on the side which he thinks is better, is finished, and you have to assume he has rejected the one on the back.
“Artists don’t always get it right, but they usually do, and I think you should respect it.”
Mr Zlattinger recalled one Scottish collector, Major Willie Bowie, who had a double-sided work by Joan Eardley. “Both sides are highly finished, and the owner sometimes swaps them round and you have that nice benefit,” he said.
Still Life with Vase and Books was also owned by J W Blyth, the Kirkcaldy entrepreneur who gave more than 100 paintings to the Kirkcaldy Art Gallery, and it was later bought by an un-named collector.
It will go on sale again on 23 May in an auction of 20th-century British and Irish art. Other Scottish paintings, including works by Peploe’s fellow Colourists, “Glasgow Boys” Arthur Melville and Sir John Lavery, Anne Redpath and “pop artist” Gerald Laing, could fetch a total of between £2 million and £3m.
Peploe’s Still Life with Coffee Pot set the record for any Scottish painting at auction when it sold last year for £930,000. His top-priced painting in this month’s sale is Ranunculus, of brilliantly coloured flowers, estimated to fetch up to £600,000.
Mr Zlattinger predicted it would not be long before a Scottish Colourist painting broke the £1m mark.
“There are definitely pictures out there, which if they ever come to market, we could look at that sort of level,” he said.