The Discovery of Spain – British Artists and Collectors: Goya to Picasso

The Discovery of Spain – British Artists and Collectors: Goya to Picasso

Viva España

The National Galleries’ summer exhibition celebrates Spanish culture as seen through the eyes of British artists. Neil Cooper dons his sombrero

Spanish holidays have come a long way from the sun, sea and sangria of the 1970s and having it large in Ibiza in the 90s. Yet, the pop cultural memorabilia of both eras remains in the bullfighting posters and maracas many brought home as jet-age international travel trickled down the class scale.

Those who discovered Spain over the previous couple of centuries, however, found far richer pickings, as the National Gallery of Scotland’s summer exhibition attests. Taking as its starting point the ways in which British artists responded to Spain between 1800-1930, it sets examples of their work alongside works by home-grown maestros. The result, book-ended by the two major conflicts of the Peninsular war of 1807-14 and the Spanish Civil War, is a rich and dramatic encapsulation of the Anglo-Spanish experience.

‘We are celebrating the British link with Spain,’ explains deputy director of the National Galleries, Christopher Baker. ‘When you think about Spain today, you think of it as a holiday resort. But that’s a very recent development. If you go back further than a century you think of a country that was in the midst of change. We’re telling the story of that change.’

Much of Britain’s initial experience of Spain arose from the two countries’ common enemy of Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington’s key role in expelling the occupying French from Spanish soil. The very different responses of artists from each nation to this liberation, though, are telling.

‘The British response to Spain was a hugely edited one,’ Baker points out. ‘Most British artists became entranced by Alhambra and the great cathedrals of Seville. So, while Goya painted the Duke of Wellington exhausted after battle, and doesn’t shy away from any of the ravages of war, 20 years later, Sir David Wilkie (in ‘The Defence of Saragossa’) puts a very positive spin on things.’

It is for this reason, perhaps, that works by El Greco, Velazquez, Murillo and Zurbaren form the centrepiece of a show counterpointed by major British artists such as Wilkie, David Roberts and David Bromberg. Richard Ford’s pioneering travel guide, Handbook for Travellers in Spain, meanwhile, offered up an influential cultural tourist’s view of Spain on its publication in 1845. The most powerful piece in the exhibition, though, is Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’, a harrowing depiction of the Spanish Civil War that originally toured Britain in 1938 alongside the more famous ‘Guernica’. A preparatory drawing and associated etching by Picasso will hang alongside British responses to the war by Wyndham Lewis, Henry Moore and Edward Burra.

‘I think it shows how you shouldn’t rely on clichés,’ Baker says of the contrasting worldviews. ‘When one country looks at another, the relationship between the insider and outsider views become very interesting. But to fully understand that relationship, you have to get beyond the clichés.’

The Discovery of Spain – British Artists and Collectors: Goya to Picasso, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, Sat 18 Jul–Sun 11 Oct.