The Marylebone Journal takes a tour of The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection’s landmark El Greco to Goya exhibition casts new light on some of the great masterpieces of Spanish painting. The Journal takes a tour.

Words: Clare Finney

Between you and me, I’ve always found Velázquez’s The Lady with a Fan the most underwhelming of the Wallace Collection’s highlights. Sure, it’s accurate enough: the lady is discernibly a lady, the fan recognisably a fan—but I could never quite see the point. “Give me Brizo the dog, or a still life hare any day,” I’d think, as I sauntered past on my way to the Dutch masters. But a tour around the Wallace’s latest exhibition, El Greco to Goya: Spanish Masterpieces from The Bowes Museum, throws fresh perspective not just on this lady, but all of the collection’s Spanish art.

My guide for the day is Isabelle Kent, a young curator whose extraordinary knowledge makes a mockery of the fact that she’s only recently joined the institution, fresh from university. “I remember watching a Goya documentary when I was five and seeing those works at the Prado,” she says, by way of explanation. “My love of Spanish art just went on from there.” She’s excited by this exhibition in the way an astrophysicist might be by a probe that shows a new aspect of a planet we thought we knew and understood.

“Neither the Wallace nor the Bowes”—the latter being the art collection from which this exhibition hails—“are known for their Spanish art. They are better known for their French and English paintings,” says Isabelle. For the Wallace Collection, the exhibition represents the chance to attract new visitors and remind regulars of the existence and significance of its works by Velázquez and Murillo. For the Bowes Museum, situated up in windswept County Durham, it is like a postcard, “a little pocket of the Bowes in London, which will hopefully encourage people to visit them in the north-east”.

Wallace of the north
On the surface of it, these collections share many characteristics—the Bowes has even been dubbed the ‘Wallace of the north’ in art circles. They are both housed in grand manors, and the Bowes, like the Wallace, is the product of a 17th century family’s passion for procuring great art. One similarity is particularly striking: the illegitimacy of the eponymous collectors. While both John Bowes and Richard Wallace were of aristocratic descent, they were also both, to use the vernacular, bastards. But when it comes to the art in question, it seems their collections are more identifiable by their differences than their kinship.

Though bequeathed to the nation in 1897 by Sir Richard Wallace’s widow, the art at Hertford House in Manchester Square was, at the start, a private collection. “Richard Wallace and the fourth Marquess concentrated on getting the best pictures they could, at any price really. They were outbidding the Rothschilds at auctions,” Isabelle marvels. John Bowes and his wife Joséphine were quite different. Theirs was a commitment to collecting for educational purposes: to elevate their small market town of Barnard Castle to a seat of artistic learning. They bought their El Grecos and Goyas not because they were in high demand, but because they weren’t. “They were completely unfashionable. At the time they were painted, they were too ‘out there’, and by the time the Bowes were collecting, not enough time had passed for them to be re-appreciated,” Isabelle explains.

Indeed, the only reason the Bowes family got them in the first place was thanks to a dealer who liaised between them and the widow of an important art collector. “The Conde de Quinto in Paris had built up his own private art collection. After he died, the Countess de Quinto needed money, so she sold them through Benjamin Gogué, a dealer whom she trusted. Perhaps too much,” Isabelle smiles. She has seen the Bowes archive, and it’s clear from Gogué’s letters who got the better deal.

Gogué didn’t suggest these works were fashionable. But he did say they were worth saving—and it is as well he did. The first painting to catch your eye as you step into the intimate space of the gallery is, Isabelle tells me, “probably the best example of El Greco’s work in the UK.” Its subject is the tears of St Peter: the disciple, upon hearing the sound of the cock’s crow, realises he has denied Jesus three times and breaks down, weeping in penitence. With his eyes raised to the sky, his hands wringing together, St Peter is everything you’d expect from a religious artwork—but there is far more to get out of this piece than Christian imagery. 

Worked and controlled
“El Greco depicts this scene a number of times, but this is without doubt the first that he did. It is so worked and controlled.” In the foreground, a sprig of ivy is as naturalistic as something you’d find in a Van Ruisdael landscape; in the background, Mary Magdalene is depicted hurrying toward Peter from Christ’s empty tomb in what Isabelle describes as a “loose, abstract, almost cubist” sort of way. “Of course, I don’t want to be proto-modernist,” Isabelle corrects herself quickly—though I can’t say I’d picked up on it. “It’s just interesting, because Picasso loved the works of El Greco, and Cézanne made a copy of his paintings, so there was clearly a connection there.”

Particularly exciting for Isabelle—and indeed, for anyone who likes seeing the texture of oil paint—is the opportunity to see this version of the Tears of St Peter lit in splendid isolation, free of the glass that normally covers it. “When you are in a museum with hundreds of paintings on a single wall, you cannot light it in this way,” she says, “and you have to protect them.” For this exhibition, the Wallace has been given permission to remove the glass covering, unleashing the vivid colours and tactile strokes of El Greco’s brushwork.

Look out for his signature, splayed audaciously across the side of the painting: “People just didn’t sign their work like that in this period, particularly in Spain where artists were still very much thought of as craftsmen.” Born and raised in Crete, before moving to Spain via Italy in later life, El Greco was proud of his Greek heritage, and signed his name in the most prominent position, large and flamboyant.

Pale and skeletal
Behind us, the rest of the collection beckons eagerly, starting with two Goya paintings, equally accomplished and taken not from the bible, but from all-too-real life. “This was another one that Bowes had to be convinced by,” says Isabelle. “Goya wasn’t really popular at the time, but Gogué persuaded them.” The painting, executed when the artist was recovering from a life-threatening illness in the 1790s, is of the inside of a Spanish prison: pitch black, but for the circle of light shed by an arch. Within that, a group of prisoners are eerily visible, each in varying states of dishevelment. “It looks like Goya’s depicting the different stages of prison life: one man is naked and bound, one is in rags, and this man seems to have just arrived, still in his fine garments,” observes Isabelle. It’s easy to miss the man slumped in the background, pale and skeletal, but he must have been there longest. “See, he is old and his beard is long and straggly.” Small, dark, painted on tin in place of canvas, it feels like a window into Goya’s disease-weary mind.

Mercifully, the subject of the neighbouring work offers some consolation: a prison reformer whom Goya painted after his illness. By this point, Goya was part of a group of thinkers who met regularly to discuss art and the need for social justice. Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés was one such thinker, a politician appointed to reform the incarceration system while at the height of his government career. “He was one of the most important politicians in Madrid at the time,” Isabelle tells me. Goya captured not the politician, but the person. “It’s a subtle portrait. The reddish cheeks and the furrowed brow show this is not an idealised version,” she continues. “It gets to the heart of who he was as a person—and as a friend.”

The two works complement each other perfectly. The cause and the crusader; the companion and the conversation he would have had with Goya during that period. In theory, these are the only Goyas to be found in the exhibition. In practice, the collaboration has provided ample opportunity for certain works to be reattributed and reassessed. “Next month we are having a symposium at the Wallace Collection and a lot of Spanish art scholars are coming to talk about this exhibition and various aspects of it.” As part of that, the Wallace Collection’s director, Dr Xavier Bray, will argue for the inclusion of a ‘new’ Goya, on display in this gallery. “One of the great things about this exhibition is that it gives us the chance to consider the paintings without glass, in isolation, on their own terms.”

Dr Bray will suggest the reattribution to Goya of a portrait of a woman, previously thought to have been painted by one of his followers. Another scholar will do the same for A Levitation of St Frances, a religious piece currently believed to be have been produced by a workshop of Jusepe de Ribera, rather than by Ribera himself. “The white face, with its red, bloodshot eyes,” admires Isabelle, “it doesn’t feel like something a workshop would do. It is so intense, so beautifully realised.” Part of the excitement of this collaboration is the possibility of reappraising a few overlooked paintings and giving their creators the credit they deserve. 

Drama, still life and intimacy
Thanks in no small part to Gogué, the Bowes Museum has one of the largest collections of Spanish paintings in the country, spanning three centuries. The 13 works which are at the Wallace now are a mere taster, chosen for their diversity (“you have the drama, still lives and more intimate scenes represented”) and for the various questions they arouse. Over the months of its opening, art scholars and lovers will come from around the world to revel in these works, and the indulgent intimacy of this exhibition. Yet while here, visitors would do well to spend some time rediscovering those remarkable Spanish paintings the Wallace Collection has always had on its walls.

“The Bowes has a selection of art not represented by the Wallace, and we have an area of Spanish art the Bowes hasn’t collected.” Those looking to remind themselves of the Wallace’s Merillos and Velasquezes in light of the El Greco to Goya exhibition can follow a trail of red signs, discreetly tacked to the signature claret-coloured walls. There are the portraits of the Prince Baltasar Carlos, pre-school age and adorably comical in his royal finery or miniature suits of armour, riding a pony. There are Murillo’s scenes of religious events, with their entrancing fusion of grace, and emotional realism. And of course, there’s The Lady with a Fan, staring blankly out from a grey background and clinging defensively onto her shawl.

For years, she is thought to have been a member of Velázquez’s family: he must have been roping them into sitting for him for practice, after all. Yet as their historical knowledge has broadened, researchers increasingly believe her to be Marie de Rohan, the French duchess of Chevreuse. “She was a very manipulative figure in the French court—good friends with the queen. But when she fell out with the queen she had to flee France for Madrid, and the protection of Philip IV,” says Isabelle. “We know Velázquez painted her, from a letter of the time, but the portrait has never been identified.” Could this be the fugitive Duchess of Chevreuse?

We’ll probably never know for certain. But the thought of it is intriguing—and that is the beauty of this collaboration between these two great galleries. An interesting fact, a shift in perspective, a talented curator—even the removal of a glass pane—and those paintings you once sallied past can appear in a fresh and beguiling new light.

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