Old Spanish customers

Some of the Iberian treasures bought by Victorian collector John Bowes can now be seen in London

Michael Prodger

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.

The Bowes Museum is sending a representative selection of its pictures, spanning the 16th to 18th centuries, to London; it will, in the limited exhibition space at Manchester Square, flesh out the Wallace’s own Spanish Golden Age works. The highlight is undoubtedly El Greco’s The Tears of Saint Peter, painted in the 1580s and the earliest of his six versions of the subject. When John and Joséphine Bowes bought the picture in 1869 El Greco was a problematic figure, a Cretan painter domiciled in Spain who defied classification and worked in a deeply idiosyncratic and unacademic style, which is why it went for a derisory price — about £8. In the same year Joséphine spent some £200 on two dresses and accessories from the couturier Charles Worth. What they got for their money was an exceptionally poignant painting showing St Peter weeping in shame at his denial of Christ. The monumentality of the saint betrays El Greco’s training as an icon painter while the moist eyes and hands halfway between prayer and wringing express the spiritual emotionalism demanded by the Counter Reformation.

Something of the intensity of El Greco’s vision is evident in The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew by his pupil Luis Tristán de Escamilla (c1585-1624). It is a strange and uncomfortable picture with the saint, whose honed body belies his aged face, tied to an X-shaped cross and looking to Heaven as he expires.

Although Sir William Stirling-Maxwell’s Annals of the Artists of Spain was published in 1848 to alert the British audience to the merits of the peninsula’s minor masters, he was only partially successful. This is precisely the type of Catholic painting that found little favour in Britain outside co-religionists. The same is true of the Levitation of Saint Francis painted 1630-1650 by a follower of the great Jusepe de Ribera after a lost original. British connoisseurs, on the whole, preferred their saints not to fly.

The exhibition also includes two very different Goyas. The first is a portrait of Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés of 1797, a friend of the painter and a leading light among the ilustrados — the circle of men who drove the short-lived Spanish Enlightenment. The sitter’s quizzical expression and open mouth, frozen in mid discussion with the painter, have an informality that contrasts with his straight-backed posture, a hint perhaps at Valdés’s position as Royal Prosecutor. The second is Interior of a Prison (1793), one of 13 small pictures of prisons, lunatic asylums and shipwrecks Goya painted while recuperating from a severe illness and for which, he said, “there is normally no opportunity in commissioned works, which give no scope  for fantasy and invention”. This painting of chained and supine prisoners shows that, for all his sympathy with Enlightenment thinking, Goya could never shake off his pessimistic view of human nature.

If El Greco and Goya are now celebrated the exhibition also displays such unfamiliar artists as Antonio de Pereda y Salgado (1611-1678), Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-1690), and José Antolínez (1635-1675). That so many Spanish painters remain little-known shows that the proselytising started by the Wallace and the Bowes more than a century ago is not finished yet.

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