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Isack van Ostade’s “A Village Fair, With a Church Behind” before conservation (all images courtesy Royal Collection Trust)

Conservators in England have uncovered 17th-century potty humor in a painting owned by the Royal Family, Smithsonian.com reports. It turns out that Isack van Ostade’s “A Village Fair With a Church Behind” (1643) — as the painting was perhaps cheekily titled — shows a man with his pants down relieving himself in the middle of a busy street.

Staff at the Royal Collection Trust discovered this “surprising element,” as they called it, while cleaning the painting ahead of an upcoming exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery. They realized that a bush in the right foreground wasn’t original to the painting but had been added in 1903. As they started removing it, the squatting peasant appeared. 

Detail of Isack van Ostade’s “A Village Fair, With a Church Behind”

The 16th- and 17th-century Dutch painters seemed to enjoy inserting exposed buttocks into their paintings. They appear in Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” (c. 1500), Brueghel the Younger’s Winter Landscape (1564), and Brueghel the Elder’s Netherlandish Roverbs (1559). “Dutch artists often include people or animals answering the call of nature partly as a joke and partly to remind viewers of that crucial word ‘nature,’ the inspiration for their art,” said Desmond Shawe-Taylor, surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures collection, in a statement.

Jokes about poop and pee have also been a staple of British comedy since Geoffrey Chaucer published The Canterbury Tales in 1475. William Shakespeare routinely made fart jokes in works like The Comedy of Errors, and George IV seemed to have no problem with it when he purchased “A Village Fair” in 1810.

But during the more repressed — let’s say it, constipated — Edwardian era, toilet humor may have been less welcome. “Queen Victoria thought the Dutch pictures in her collection were painted in a ‘low style,’” Shawe-Taylor said. “[Two] years after her death perhaps a royal advisor felt similar.”

Whatever the case, the new finding suggests there might yet be more rear ends to be exposed in the Royal Family’s collection. Conservators found one in a tavern sign in Jan Steen’s A Village Revel” (1673), also acquired by George IV. A bull’s head had been painted over it.

“A Village Fair, With a Church Behind,” after conservation, with the squatter in the lower righthand corner (click to enlarge)

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...