September 24, 2017
‘The best place to see Spanish art in the UK,” says Xavier Bray, director of the Wallace Collection in London, “is the Bowes Museum.” This remarkable institution in Barnard Castle, County Durham, exists because of the philanthropic instincts of its founders, John and Joséphine Bowes. He was British, the illegitimate son of the third Earl of Strathmore; she was a Frenchwoman who had acted on the Paris stage. Neither lived to see the Bowes open 125 years ago, but they bequeathed some remarkable pictures to the people of north-east England.
In 1862, their art adviser Benjamin Gogué wrote to them about El Greco and Goya, saying: “I have sold several pictures by these two masters. Although these two don’t appeal to you as artists, I think you might well take one of each for your collection.” They did, and the result is that Barnard Castle has what Bray, former curator of Spanish art at the National Gallery in London, calls “easily the greatest Goya portrait in the country”, a penetratingly intimate image of the painter’s friend, the poet, lawyer and prison reformer Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés. It also has one of the best works made by El Greco, The Tears of St Peter. This subject, showing the saint in an agony of self-loathing after betraying Christ, was one that the Cretan artist returned to several times; there are at least six versions. This, however, is “the prime original”, says Bray.
Now, for the first time, these masterpieces, alongside a small but exquisite selection of Spanish paintings also drawn from the Bowes, can be seen (free) at the Wallace Collection, where they have been liberated from the somewhat congested “salon hang” of their regular home, and allowed to star in their own small-scale drama. The show’s faintly ecclesiastical atmosphere, with its dark, moody walls and dramatic lighting, is a reminder that most of these pictures were originally made for religious contexts, and that their acquisition by the Boweses was indirectly due to the confiscation of property in 1836 from the Spanish church by the liberal government of Juan Álvarez Mendizábal.