GALLERY visitors in London in the past few months have been treated to a splash of Mediterranean colour and southern warmth with two exhibitions. At Gagosian (Grosvenor Hill), Sir John Richardson brought together an extraordinary selection of Picasso’s tauromachia, his almost obsessive depictions of bullfighters, bulls, and, of course, the Minotaur.
“Minotaurs and Matadors” drew mainly on work from the 1930s and 1940s. But in a range of media, from an oil painting of 1898 to one of his last lithographs (1971), this also included a damaged ceramic vase painted with the face of a bearded man (17 July 1962, from the Abelló collection), the powerful painting of the artist’s son, aged four, dressed as a toreador in 1925, and all seven prints of the famous 1935 series of La Minotaurmachie.
Round the corner and down the hill in Mayfair, the Royal Academy brought in a show from Boston of Matisse and his relationship with the everyday objects in his studio: glassware, plates, a Venetian chair with serpentine dolphin arms, and seahorse feet, a much-loved silver chocolate pot, and wall hangings from North Africa.
Running till last week, the exhibition in Piccadilly, despite cramming 35 objects and some 65 pictures into the small spaces of the upstairs Sackler Galleries, offered a summer lightness with a breath of the Med. Dalí and his singular friendship with Duchamp playfully occupies the galleries down below (until 3 January 2018), to offer a rather different view of Spain.
I was prompted to visit the Gagosian show when that day’s morning reading from the Old Testament had reached the Golden Calf. Bull worship was a commonplace of the ancient Near East, and of Palestinian and Cretan cultures spreading as far west as the gates of Hercules, where were the three bronze Talayot bull’s heads from Costitx in Mallorca, a highlight of the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid.
The Bowes MuseumIntensity: Juan Bautista Maino (1578-1641), Saint Agabus, 1600-49
Both Picasso, by birth despite his later self-imposed exile from his native country, and Matisse, from a gradual Drang nach Suden (who would have guessed that he grew up near the Belgium border and had become a lawyer long before trips to the Louvre encouraged him to a deeper artistic understanding?), reflect something of the torrid Spanish heat in their work.
Acquiring Spanish art has long been a proper obsession for the British, and our collections reflect a wide range of top-quality work quite the equal of anything that can be found elsewhere.
The fall-out from the Peninsular War and the aftermath of a programme of laicisation of religious communities first adopted at the end of the 18th century led to the sale of many works of art from churches and convents. Works of art stolen by Napoleon or sold off by indigent hidalgos from palaces and country villas stimulated international interest in Spanish art. That so much art is still in situ indicates just how rich the country’s treasures had been before the depradations of the 19th century and the more recent carnage of the 1936-39 Civil War.
Two such beneficiaries from this expanding art market in the mid-19th century, which had ended up concentrated on Paris, were an illegitimate member of the late Queen Mother’s Scots family, the Roman Catholic John Bowes (1811-55), and Richard Seymour-Conway (1800-70), the 4th Marquess of Hertford.
Both aristocrats bought widely (not just Iberian art) in the Paris of Napoleon III, and knew one another. Both were members of the Jockey Club, and, at one point, in 1857, when All Saints’, Blackheath, was being built, Bowes proposed selling a redundant Parisian music hall to Hertford to increase the marquess’s property portfolio in the Second Empire.
When the Bowes Museum opened (1892) in Barnard Castle, County Durham, it held 76 Spanish paintings, making it by far the largest such collection in Britain. Dr Xavier Bray, one of the leading Hispanic art historians of our day, who is the newly established Director of the Wallace Collection, has collaborated with the Bowes to bring a baker’s dozen of its great Spanish works to London for the first time.
The loss of Cuba in 1898 marked the end of the claims for a Spanish Empire, and stimulated collectors, both in Spain and more widely, to turn their attention to the treasures of the peninsula, concentrating on the Golden Age of Spanish art from the early 16th century to the end of the 17th.
Lázaro Galdiano (1862-1947), who established himself as editor of La España Moderna in 1898, built the Villa Florida in uptown Madrid in 1903 to house his holdings of Spanish art. Today it is still rated as the most distinguished private museum among the riches of that city. Across the Atlantic, in the United States, Archer M. Huntingdon used family money to open the Hispanic Society in America in 1904 in Upper Manhattan.
The HSA claims still (in a very American way) that, if Spain were wholly destroyed, its culture and empire would be more than recorded by its assemblage of works of art. The recent show of more than 200 treasures from the institution at the Prado this summer attracted more than 460,000 visitors; I caught up with it in September just before violence broke out in Cataluñya which lead to see the break-up, if not, I pray, the destruction, of modern Spain.
The first painting that we get to see, looking through the length of the two basement exhibition rooms, is Immaculate Conception of 1668-70 by José Antolínez (1635-75), one of more than two dozen known versions of the subject by this painter, and thought to be the prototype of one of the more popular compositions.
The painter and art historian Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644) had earlier in the century recommended how individual saints were to be represented; he recommended, for instance, that when the Archangel appears to Joseph to dissuade him from abandoning the pregnant Mary, the carpenter should have his packed-up tool bag at his side, as the artist demonstrated in a painting for the Jesuits at St Hermenegildo, Seville (now in the Real Academia, Madrid).
His was largely the vade mecum for how best to represent the theology that underpins the immaculate conception. A generation after his book appeared posthumously (1649), Antolínez is off having fun. The Virgin wears a silvery dress, trimmed at the collar and cuffs with pearls, and a blue mantle. At her feet, half a dozen cherubs cavort, playing with lilies, tulips, a baton, and a palm branch. It is a good painting to test sensibilities.
The Bowes MuseumPenitent apostle: Domenikos Theotokopoulos, El Greco (1541-1614), The Tears of St Peter, 1580-89
You don’t have to be a Roman Catholic to enjoy it, but if you find it more than saccharine, you might find you want to spend time elsewhere in the exhibition. The Bowes paid 2,500 francs for it in 1863; six years later, from the same French art dealer, it picked up the El Greco Penitent Peter for a mere 200 francs.
Again, the composition is one to which its artist returned repeatedly, but the Bowes Museum holds the primary version. Reckoned to date to the 1580s, it is a profound reflection on the Counter-Reformation emphasis on repentance. Peter gazes upwards, his clasped hands just beginning to relax where once they may have been grasped in tension, as the prospect of redemption dawns on him.
Behind him, we glimpse the first morning of Easter Day as the Magdalen returns from the Empty Tomb, where an angel now sits. Schooled in the Orthodox Greek world of Crete as an icon-writer, El Greco had worked with Titian in Venice before going to Rome and, in the 1570s, to Toledo.
Something of the reserved nature of his religious art spills over into the work of his pupil the Franciscan Juan Battista Maino (1581-1649), to whom is now credited an extraordinary portrayal of a Carmelite saint holding a model of a church which, following a suggestion made by the Prior General of the Carmelite Order in 1953, has been thought to represent St Agabus (Acts 11.28 and 21.10), despite the lack of a halo and his mendicant vesture.
Maino’s technique is typically characterised by an intense pictorial density that is largely lacking in this canvas, which is not in the best condition, as it has been excessively cleaned in various places. But nothing can take away from the directness of the saintly gaze, with large brown eyes and long thick eyebrows.
Standing alongside the stately St Eustochium (do keep up: she assisted St Jerome in translating the Bible into the Vulgate, as we see in a delightful vignette behind her), painted by Juan de Valdés Leal for the Hieronymites in Seville, and a severe-looking widowed queen of Spain (Marianna of Austria by Claudio Coello), the prophet Agabus is in good company with those who preached and proclaimed the Faith.
If irreverently I regard the Bowes loan as tapas, then repairing upstairs in Manchester House for the main course seems appropriate. And I don’t just mean to the courtyard restaurant, which happens to be very good; a gallery trail highlights the Wallace’s own Hispanic paintings, which can be found on the end wall of the Smoking Room (Francisco Meneses Osorio, Assumption) and then, going up the back stairs to the east, in the Great Gallery itself.
Here seven paintings of Murillo from the 1660s and 1670s, Alonso Cano’s great Vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem (1635-38), and two portraits by Velázquez vie with one another for our attention, and reflect a very different balance of interests from that shown in the north by John and Joséphine Bowes.
There is always so much to be seen in the Wallace (which is free and is open seven days a week, a veritable haven of culture away from the commercial distraction of Oxford Street) that even walking up to the Great Gallery I was arrested by works that I had forgotten or perhaps not seen in such light before.
A single visit is a luxury, but a return is unquestionably a requirement. With Dr Bray at the helm, we can hope to see a continued focus on things Spanish.
“El Greco to Goya: Spanish Masterpieces from The Bowes Museum” is at the Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1, until 7 January 2018. Phone 020 7563 9500.