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Treasures from the Hispanic world now at the Royal Academy

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art Correspondent

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Portrait of a Little Girl, c. 1638-42, Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 41 cm

On loan from The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY

“The best collection of Spanish and Hispanic art outside of Spain” has come to London. At any rate, a selection of it has, calling at the Royal Academy in the last stop of a tour that included the Prado in Madrid while the collection’s New York home undergoes renovation.

The Hispanic Society Museum & Library’s huge, 15 thousand object-strong collection was born out of the singular passion of one man: a man whose love for Spain and all things Spanish developed from the moment when, aged twelve, in a Liverpool bookshop he picked up a book called The Zincali about the gypsies of Spain. It was 1882, and Archer M. Huntington, the son of a wealthy industrialist (railway building) father and art-loving mother, was on his first trip to Europe.

Even before he had visited Spain, he had the idea of creating a museum dedicated to Spain and Latin America. Immersing himself in its history and culture, learning Spanish and Arabic, and taking extended trips to Spain, he visited European auction houses, and in 1904 founded the Hispanic Society Museum and Library in New York City.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy is the first time the collection has been to the UK. Arranged chronologically, 150 objects sweep across four millennia, presenting a necessarily limited but stunning visual narrative of the diverse cultural and religious influences that have shaped art and culture in the Spanish world.

Beginning in antiquity, the earliest items include finely decorated earthenware bowls dating to c.2,400-1,900 BCE. Prestige objects in their day, from the maritime Bell Beaker culture that originated in Portugal, they astonishingly were found unbroken near Seville. A nearby display of Celtiberian silver, gold and electrum jewellery comprises fabulous coiled bangles and torques from the Palencia hoard discovered in 1911. Also on display, is some gorgeous lustreware from 14th -16th century Manises, Valencia, pharmacy jars and giant platters and decorations that tell of artistic exchanges between Muslim and Christian Spain.

Portable writing desk, Pasto, Colombia, c. 1684, Barniz de Pasto lacquer on wood, 19 x 36 x 30.5 cm; Alhambra Silk, Nasrid, Granada, c. 1400, Silk, 237.5 x 152.3 cm; Attributed to Manuel Chili, called Caspicara, The Four Fates of Man: Death, Soul in Hell, Soul in Purgatory, Soul in Heaven, Ecuador c. 1775, Polychromed wood, glass and metal, 17.9 x 11.8 x 8.4 cm, 17.9 x 14.5 x 8 cm, 16.9 x 11.1 x 12.3 cm, 17.6 x 11 x 12.3 cm. All pieces on loan from The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY

Exquisite silken textiles from Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, from the 13- or 1400s, distract me, they are so gorgeous, their designs evoking tile designs from the Alhambra palace in Granada. Moments later, I’m transported to the Renaissance and eastern Spain and some fantastical door-knockers - a lizard, a wolf, a dog... Next, another place, another influence, as across the room I notice a Roman mosaic and a Head of Medusa from Seville.

It’s an extraordinary eclectic mix. Skipping between time, place, influence, material, you hop between displays and cover a lot of ground. The wall texts do their best to anchor us to the narrative, but it’s hard to keep up. I decide instead just to soak up the quality and beauty of these stupendous objects.

The next gallery is devoted to Mediaeval and Early Modern Spain - and the Spanish ‘Golden Age’ or ‘Siglo de Oro’ when the arts flourished. The greats of the period are represented by artists such as El Greco, the Greek painter and sculptor who moved to Toledo in 1577, and his arresting painting of a Penitent St Jerome; and Diego Velázquez, Phillip IV’s court painter; Francisco de Zurbarán; Luis de Morales and an unmissable Christ Presented to the People (Ecce Homo), c.1565; and, of course, by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) who has a room to himself. Here, in pride of place, The Duchess of Alba (1797) looks imperiously down on all, while across the room three of Goya’s brilliant little social commentary drawings catch the eye, especially the girl checking her dress for fleas.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, The Duchess of Alba, 1797, Oil on canvas, 210.3 x 149.3 cm. On loan from The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY

A lovely picture of a much younger girl catches my eye next. It is Velázquez’s unassuming portrait (c.1638-42) of a dark-haired girl with a soulful expression who may, or may not have been the artist’s granddaughter. Almost certainly she has to be someone close to the artist as he gives careful attention to her features, and barely any to painting her dress.

Treasures from the Hispanic Society’s renowned library include some rarely seen objects from Spanish colonial Latin America. Among them are a beautifully illuminated Hebrew Bible (after 1450-97), a Black Book of Hours, c. 1458, commissioned by María of Castile (1401-1458), its pages dyed black probably upon the death of her husband, and maps charting the world beyond Spain, extending existing understanding.

Giovanni Vespucci’s celebrated World Map, 1526, drew me like a magnet. The map, one of the most impressive nautical charts produced during the Age of Exploration, was probably intended as a gift for Charles V on his marriage to Isabella of Portugal. I stood forever trying to discern place names along the wiggly coastlines and places represented in words and images. Delightful.

I then stood amazed at the illustrated Map of Tequaltiche in Mexico. Created in 1584 by the Caxcan people on the order of King Philip II of Spain as part of the Relaciones Geográficas (Geographic Accounts) for the regions they now administered, it represents the land and the people, including encounters between the two distinct cultures, the European explorers and the indigenous people of the Americas, at that time called New Spain.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, The Provinces of Spain: Castile (sketch), 1912-13, Gouache on kraft paper, 107 x 771 cm.

On loan from The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY

The exhibition ends with post-Impressionist and modern artists such as Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923), Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945) and José Gutiérrez Solana (1886-1945), plus a large-scale panoramic gouache for the Vision of Spain, the monumental site-specific mural painted by Sorolla for the Hispanic Society between 1912 and 1919.


Spain and the Hispanic World Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library The Royal Academy of Arts

Showing until: 10 April 2023

Note: The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue featuring the greatest treasures from the collection and an introduction to the history of the Hispanic Society.


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