A spectacular collection of Spanish culture through the eyes of British artists and collectors, The Discovery of Spain explored the work of nineteenth and early twentieth-century British artists, such as Sir David Wilkie, David Roberts, John Phillip and Arthur Melville, all of whom were captivated and inspired by Spain.
It also examined the tastes of British collectors of Spanish art, who acquired masterpieces by Velazquez, El Greco, Murillo and Zurbaran. The exhibition included over 130 paintings, watercolours, drawings and prints; including important loans from the Royal Collection, Tate, the National Gallery, London and other distinguished collections across the UK.
The Age of Goya
The nineteenth century was a period of upheaval in Spain, marked by The Peninsular War (the war of independence). The struggle was depicted by artists from both Spain and Britain.
Painter and printmaker Francisco de Goya, for example, depicted British military hero Wellington. In contrast are Goya's depictions of the horrors from the front line; Goya's series of prints entitled Disasters of War concentrated on the brutality of conflict and individual cruelty rather than the glory of war.
Just as Goya left Spain to spend his final years in France, Sir David Wilkie arrived in the country and found fresh inspiration in the works of a range of artists including Velázquez. Though renowned for his genre scenes of Scottish life, the trip resulted in Wilkie exploring more ambitious historical subjects and culminated in a series exploring aspects of the Peninsula War. These dramatic paintings illustrating Spain's war against the French created a sensation and were soon acquired by George IV
The British ‘Discovery’ of Spanish Golden Age Art
British collections are rich with Spanish paintings of the seventeenth century (the ‘Golden Age') and include stunning examples of work by Velázquez, Murillo, Zurbarán and El Greco. These collections were primarily developed during the nineteenth century by individuals with a particular interest in Spain, and later through the expansion of public collections.
The work of Murillo was arguably the most prized by British collectors, especially in the early nineteenth century, and his genre scenes proved particularly popular.
The work of El Greco, however, took far longer to find an appreciative audience in Britain and it was not until the twentieth century that his work became popular with collectors.
The Cult of Velázquez
In the nineteenth century, British scholars, critics and artists had an increasing interest in the work of Diego Velázquez, who is now considered one of Spain's greatest artists. His paintings could be studied both on tours to Spain and within British collections, which were gradually enriched with them.
Velázquez' work had a direct affect on late nineteenth century painters in a variety of ways. Sir John Everett Millais concentrated on evoking the rich, painterly qualities of Velazquez' technique while others, such as James McNeill Whistler, adopted poses from his portraiture.
Academic interest in the work of Velázquez was undertaken by British historians, notably Sir William Stirling Maxwell, whose Velázquez and his Works was published in 1855. Stirling Maxwell maintained that ‘No artist of the seventeenth century equalled Velázquez in variety or power. He tried all subjects and he succeeded in all.'
Colour and Light
From the 1880s onwards, the colour and light of Spain, more intense than could be found in northern Europe, attracted several of the more progressive artists to Spain.
Among these was Arthur Melville, a member of the Glasgow Boys, a group who had introduced their own kind of Impressionism into Britain.
Melville was particularly interested in capturing the brilliant light and intense colours inherent in the surroundings. His travels abroad inspired vibrant paintings in oil and watercolour and his works in Spain, executed in strong colours and with bold technique, demonstrate an interest in abstraction.
British Artists and the Spanish Civil War
The crisis of Spain's Civil War in the 1930s sparked varying responses from artists in both Spain and Britain and became the subject of Pablo Picasso's Guernica and Weeping Woman. These paintings were part of an exhibition designed to raise funds and assistance for the Republican cause after the bombing of regions by the Nationalists.
Artists in Britain contributed to the effort and, in 1935, the Artists International Association (AIA) held an exhibition entitled Artists Against War and Fascism. The show featured works by Eric Gill, Augustus John and Barbara Hepworth and the AIA went on to gain support from modernists such as Fernand Léger and László Moholy-Nagy.
Edward Burra visited Spain several times in the 1930s and was deeply affected by the Civil War. The violence and destruction witnessed by Burra had a profound impact on his work. Rather than continuing his imagery of popular culture, paintings concentrating on this period include disturbing scenes of cruelty and torture with references to medieval warfare.