John and Joséphine Bowes were the 19th century equivalent of a power couple. Together, the son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore, and his glamorous actress wife, fulfilled their life-long dream to create a world-class museum filled with treasures that people from all walks of life could appreciate. The couple were avid collectors of art, amassing over 15,000 works in the space of a decade – and The Bowes Museum, in County Durham, is one of the UK’s first family-founded public museums.
This year marks the 125th anniversary of the Museum and London’s Wallace Collection (also family-founded) is recognising the anniversary through its ‘El Greco to Goya – Spanish masterpieces from The Bowes Museum’ exhibition, which I went to see today and enjoyed very much. Spanning three centuries, it is the first London exhibition of Spanish art from the Museum. At the same time, the Wallace Collection is celebrating its own, significant collection of Spanish paintings, chosen to complement the paintings on loan from the Museum.
Due to time constraints, I bypassed the Wallace Collection’s contributions to the exhibition (some of which I’ve been lucky enough to see previously) and headed straight for the Museum’s paintings, excited to see these masterpieces from a venue I’ve not yet had the opportunity to visit. It is a small – but powerful – collection, each of whose pieces (with the exception of the still lifes, a form of which I’ve never been a fan) impressed me. The Bowes were passionate about Spanish art and their collection is described as one of the most significant and encyclopaedic outside Spain.
The majority of the works that I saw today had religious themes running through them: saints and their martyrdoms, the Virgin Mary in various forms, together with a number of miraculous events. Of the latter, I particularly admired Antonio de Pereda’s 1652 painting entitled ‘Tobias Restoring His Father’s Sight’ and the way in which Raphael turns towards the viewer, his disbelieving expression at once drawing you in to find out more about the miracle taking place within the painting.
I was also very taken with El Greco’s 1580s masterpiece ‘The Tears of Saint Peter’. Thought to be the earliest of at least six works El Greco painted of this particular biblical event, this painting positions Saint Peter in the extreme foreground with this hands tightly grasped in prayer- as though pleading forgiveness. As you gaze upon this tormented human being it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for him, despite his treachery – which says a lot about El Greco’s abilities as an artist.
This might be a small exhibition, but it is no less impactful for that. These are complex, dramatic works of art with weighty themes, which might well be diluted in a larger exhibition. I also very much liked ‘A Levitation of St Francis’, by Jusepe de Ribera; the fact that there are just two elements in the painting – the saint, clad in brown, pictured against a blue sky – makes it all the more compelling.
Impressed though I was by the scale and scope of the paintings on display, it was the smallest and most unassuming of them all which has left a lasting impression upon me: Goya’s ‘Interior of a Prison’. Painted to depict the terrible conditions of Spanish prisons in the 18th century, the images of seven frail-looking individuals, bound by chains around their hands and feet, tear at your heartstrings. Cleverly, Goya has kept the background to the figures murky, which serves to increase your discomfort at what you are seeing and emphasises the despondency surely felt by those seven individuals, whose posture say so much but whose faces you can barely discern.
Goya was preoccupied by human suffering and shared the beliefs of contemporary Enlightenment thinkers such as his close friend Juan Meléndez Valdés, who strived towards the reform of penal regulations. It is fitting, therefore, that Goya’s striking portrait of this eminent magistrate and poet hangs side-by-side with the ‘Prison’ painting: together, these works capture both the worst – and the best – of human nature.