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.
A second favourite picture must be of the King’s dissolute brother, the Infante Don Luis and his family. The Infante was an early patron of Goya, who painted him and his (morganatic) wife, María Teresa de Vallabriga, several times. The family picture is imperfect and there are many mysteries. Who are all these people? Servants or secretaries? Goya is certainly there with his paints but looking very young. And who is the laughing youth with the bandage round his head? The picture is now at home, strangely, in Parma and has visited London before, when I gave a lecture about it, during the reign of Neil MacGregor at the National Gallery.
My third favourite is the family of the Duke and Duchess of Osuna, so beautifully depicted in their elegant house just outside Madrid on the way to Barajas. I am happy to say that I have seen the buttons of the Duchess’s dress quite recently, in the possession of a charming and brilliant descendant now living in Mexico. The Duke showed himself an aristocrat when, having been named Spanish ambassador to France, he found that he was expected to go and live in Paris. One of the children depicted by Goya eventually also became an ambassador, though to Moscow, where he charmed the Tsar by offering him an egg fried in the flames of a 5,000 peso note. So much for paper money, he remarked.
I believe that the Duke liked to offer lunch to his friends any day they cared to drop in, in Madrid, Paris or Moscow. No wonder the Osunas were latterly short of money. But what generosity!
My fourth favourite picture in this exhibition must be the fine portrait of Jovellanos, the remarkable Asturian who was the outstanding Spanish liberal of the age of the French Revolution.
The portrait in London is one of several but we see in his dedicated face an enlightened minister anxious to introduce benign reforms in the face of ecclesiastical opposition. He was very much a man of Goya’s intellectual outlook. His correspondence with his English friend Lord Holland is well worth re-reading, for Holland was supportive of the revolutionary idea and even had a statue of Napoleon in his beautiful park. But Jovellanos hated violence, and told Holland so.
I have a final pleasure to recall, once having been through all the great Renaissance rooms of the Uffizi in Florence. The last picture to be presented in the great gallery was for a time Goya’s Condesa de Chinchón. I do not reject Giotto nor Cimabue. But how curiously refreshing it was to see a modern face!