Painting that solved ‘Goose Girl’ puzzle is back in Ireland – but not for National Gallery

Spring Morning Among the Bluebells was offered to the gallery but was declined

It is one of the National Gallery’s (NGI) most recognisable paintings and, for 25 years, The Goose Girl was wrongly attributed to the Irish artist William Leech. Only in 1996 did the gallery admit it had made a mistake and the work was actually by the little-known British painter Stanley Royle.

What helped settle the argument was the appearance of a remarkably similar painting by Royle, Spring Morning Among the Bluebells, at an auction in London in April 1995. That work, also showing a woman walking through woods, then disappeared into a private collection in United States.

Spring Morning Among the Bluebells has now been bought by Tony Duncan, a Laois solicitor and prominent art collector, who spotted it in an auction in Windsor, Connecticut, last year. He has since shipped it to Ireland and had it cleaned and glazed.

Mr Duncan recently offered the painting on short-term loan to the NGI, with the idea of hanging it alongside The Goose Girl, in order to reunite the Royles. The offer has been declined by Dr Caroline Campbell, the gallery’s director, however, on the basis of the limited hanging space available, particularly for post-1900 works.


“I have enjoyed looking at Royle’s The Goose Girl in the National Gallery’s collection since I was a teenager and I know the painting is regarded with much affection by many,” Dr Campbell wrote to Mr Duncan, who has previously loaned works to the NGI and other Irish institutions.

“If, in the future, we might consider a potential special display focused on this popular work, I very much hope you might be open to a suggestion of a possible short-term loan.”

Mr Duncan, who still hopes the NGI will take up his offer, believes the Irish public would greatly enjoy seeing the two Royles hang side by side.

“There is no doubt the gallery made an error in 1970 when they bought The Goose Girl thinking it was by Leech but, in the event, it was a wonderful error as the picture is one of the gallery’s most viewed works and has contributed hugely by way of merchandising,” he told The Irish Times.

Spring Morning Among the Bluebells was painted by Royle in 1913, about a decade before The Goose Girl. The British painter held on to it throughout his life. “When he died in 1961, his family kept the painting for the next 34 years before putting it for sale in Christie’s,” Mr Duncan said. “A London art dealer bought it and quickly resold it to a client in the USA and it was never seen again until put up for sale in January 2022 when I acquired it and brought it to Ireland.”

Doubts about the attribution of The Goose Girl to Leech were first raised in the 1980s by art experts Dominic Milmo-Penny and Bruce Arnold. One reason why it was thought to be a Leech was a label pasted to the back of the frame inscribed with the letters WL.

A trade stamp on the back, however, showed the canvas had been supplied by Hibbert Brothers of Sheffield, the city where Royle lived and bought his art materials.

When The Goose Girl was included in a Leech retrospective exhibition at the NGI in 1996, Mr Arnold noticed the remains of a signature on the canvas, identifying the letters, “ley” and “le”.

The then director of the gallery, Raymond Keaveney, soon put an end to the long-running controversy by issuing a statement saying the discovery of the signature “clears the way for a definitive reattribution of the painting to Stanley Royle (1888-1961)”.

John Burns

John Burns

John Burns is a contributor to The Irish Times