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Imperfect and mysterious: “The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbon”, 1783-84, by Francisco de Goya (©FONDAZIONE MAGNANI ROCCA, PARMI, ITALY)


London has had marvellous Spanish ambassadors over the last generation or two, and several of them have become my close friends. We have also had many discerning and appreciative tourists who have soon seemed to know more of London then we know ourselves.

Now in 2015 we have a very special visitor to the National Gallery. The visitor is Francisco Goya, accompanied by his friends, some royal (King Charles III, who was celebrated for saying that “rain breaks no bones”), some noble (the famous Duchess of Alba), many of them writers or intellectuals (the architect Ventura Rodríguez, for example, and the statesman Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, the first Spanish politician to write a diary), and some common people (the old women from the Palais des Beaux Arts in Lille).

There are several things which need to be said. First, the pictures shown in this fine exhibition were chosen with rare taste and imagination by a half-British, half-French specialist, Xavier Bray, whom I first encountered in Bilbao when he worked in the excellent permanent collection there. He has been assisted by the enigmatic genius Juliet Wilson-Bareau, whose catalogue raisonnée of Goya’s works remains a treasure trove. I have known her, I am glad to say, almost all my life.

Second, almost all the exhibits come from outside Britain. We have in our country a very modest Goya collection. For that reason alone, the exhibition marks a turning point in our education.

Third, this exhibition is the first serious contribution of the new director of the National Gallery, Gabriele Finaldi, who comes to London straight from the Prado. One should add that here, by the chance of Goya’s brilliance, we have preserved for ever an entire Spanish aristocracy, Albas and Osunas, Benaventes and Santa Cruz, making it evident that no other generation of Spanish people is remembered.

For the rest, each of us will have our favourite guests among the glittering array of persons presented to us so well by Goya. My first favourite is King Charles III, undoubtedly Spain’s ablest monarch between Philip II and Juan Carlos. When I last saw the latter he had another portrait of Charles behind his desk. King Charles III was dressed by Goya ready for hunting, but he is really remembered as the grand architect of Madrid, where he inspired so many great buildings, including the Prado. The portrait by Goya has him smiling in a tolerant, easy way with the Guadarrama mountains in the background. In the foreground is the King’s shooting dog.

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