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Exceptionally poignant: Detail of “The Tears of St Peter”, 1580-89, by Domenikos Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco (©The Bowes Museum)

The new exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London, El Greco to Goya: Spanish Masterpieces from The Bowes Museum (until January 7), is not simply a display of paintings but a tale of two jewel houses. The Wallace Collection and the Bowes Museum — an extraordinary French château transplanted to Barnard Castle in County Durham — contain the eclectic and spectacularly rich collections compiled in the mid-19th century by the fourth Marquess of Hertford and by John Bowes. The Bowes Museum opened to the public in 1892 and the Wallace Collection in 1900; this show therefore celebrates not just the 125th anniversary of the Bowes but the many synchronicities between the two institutions, their founders and their paintings.

It is an exhibition that can only go one way since, thanks to the terms of the original bequest, none of the Wallace’s paintings can be lent. Because reciprocal loans are the main currency of exhibition-making, this is a knot that will require all the creativity and charm of its new director, the Spanish specialist Xavier Bray, to unravel. What the Bowes Museum gets in return for its generosity is publicity and the spreading of the word that with philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer’s new Zurbarán Centre for Spanish and Latin American Art at Bishop Auckland (due to open this autumn) and the Spanish Gallery at Auckland Castle (due for completion in 2019), the north-east is becoming a Spanish outpost.

John Bowes was a Durham boy who was born illegitimate but  nevertheless inherited a considerable coal-mining fortune. His wife Joséphine was formerly an actress in the Théatre des Variétés in Paris, which he owned. They became pioneers of Spanish art: at its opening, their collection contained 76 Spanish works while the National Gallery then had only 20.

As devout Catholics they weren’t afraid of the overtly religious scenes that, to British tastes, were the least appealing aspect of Iberian art. The taste of the Marquess of Hertford and his illegitimate son Richard Wallace (another correspondence between the founders) was more representative of the times; they preferred, in Lord Hertford’s phrase, “pleasing pictures” exemplified by the “rich, mellow quality” and emotional sweetness of Murillo and the courtliness of Velázquez, a lower-ranking painter in the 19th century.

While Hertford tended to buy at auction where he generally got what he wanted — although he was once outbid on a Murillo by a collector with even deeper pockets, Tsar Nicholas I — the Bowes worked with dealers. It was their relationship with a Parisian dealer, Benjamin Gogué, that allowed them early access to a collection that had been formed by the Conde de Quinto following the dissolution of the monasteries in Spain from 1835-37. The de Quinto paintings formed the basis of their own collection.

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