Journal of Anglo-Hispanic Romanticism

Spanish Old Masters in Britain Before and After the Peninsular War: The Role of William Buchanan, Art Dealer

Rocío Coletes Laspra

Universidad de Oviedo


This paper revises the presence of Spanish art in the United Kingdom after the Peninsular War in light of the information gathered by William Buchanan (1777-1864). The Scottish art dealer had a prominent role in the import of art works during the Napoleonic Wars thanks to the art trade network he created through his agents across the European continent. In the case of Spain, responsibility for this mission fell on George Augustus Wallis (1761-1847), a British painter whose stay in the Peninsula was crucial for the export of Spanish art into Britain, which up until then had been limited to a few isolated cases mainly carried out by diplomats. In order to evaluate the relevance of the art trade and its impact on the knowledge of the Spanish Old Masters in Britain, this study focuses on Buchanan's memoirs, published in 1824. These memoirs, never analysed in depth with regard to the Spanish case, include the correspondence between Buchanan and Wallis, plus several comments on the movement and spread of paintings formerly kept in Spanish collections, their buyers, their monetary value, and the circumstances surrounding the export of paintings and other art pieces. They also provide data about relevant contemporary collectors that owned Spanish paintings. Thus, this paper aims at providing hitherto unknown information on various aspects of art collecting and taste that reflect an important side of Anglo-Spanish relations: the British perception of Spanish art during the Peninsular War and post-war periods.



The actions carried out by the Scottish art dealer William Buchanan regarding the Spanish Old Masters in Britain in the first quarter of the 19th century are nowadays considered a milestone for the reception and perception of Spanish art in the United Kingdom. The information found in his memoirs, a first-hand testimony, provides relevant data regarding an expert's impressions about the Spanish school of art and the painting collection preferences in the United Kingdom before the Peninsular War, always within the scope of the Spanish Old masters.1 By "Old masters" we mean 17th century baroque painters, like Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and Diego Vel´zquez, who met outstanding success in their lifetime compared to other Spanish Baroque painters, and whose travels and stays in Italy promoted the circulation of their work outside Spain. Before the Peninsular War, British collectors appreciated the work of those two artists, plus, in some cases, the paintings by Diego Ribera. Murillo's paintings, however, were the ones that they enjoyed most. Other main figures like the "manierista" painters El Greco and Luis Morales, or Alonso Cano and Francisco de Zurbar´n, were not much appreciated or searched by collectors and connoisseurs. For instance, Richard Twiss (1747-1821), a British traveller and a Hispanist, while describing Sevillian churches after his Spanish tour in 1772-73, considers that some Renaissance and Baroque painters do not reach the high quality of Velázquez and Murillo.2


Several reasons explain this lack of appreciation that both Twiss and Buchanan manifest in their memoirs. First of all, those paintings were distant from the preferences of the average British collector—Flemish, Dutch and "German" portraits and landscapes. The latter were cheaper and more easily available in the art market, and their medium-size format facilitated their circulation. There was also a predominant tendency towards Italian paintings, among other reasons because of the contacts established between British travellers and Italy via the Grand Tour, as well as the numerous British noblemen, bankers, and artists that took up residence in that country, thus promoting the circulation of paintings. In this sense, Italy was one of the main sources for British collectors and the art trade (in which Buchanan was also involved) was dynamic and strong compared to the circulation of Spanish masters' works which were not available and did not enter those circuits. Murillo was one exception as his paintings were on the market more frequently than those by other Spanish painters, and also because his aesthetic features approached him to an Italian school that was highly demanded by collectors.


Secondly, lack of understanding of the Spanish painting proposals and other aesthetic reasons prevented their success among British collectors. It is necessary to take into account that knowledge of many Spanish artists was likewise limited due to lack of international spreading of Spanish artistic literature before the 19th century, as well as to lack of dissemination of prints related to their works, that might have facilitated the knowledge of Spanish masters outside the country. The location of many of these paintings in convents, monasteries and palaces, aggravated the problem. Buchanan adds to these reasons the existence in Spain of regulations against the export of paintings that he considers "strict prohibitive edicts" though these did not in fact exit until the 1779 Floridablanca Decree was passed and, even so, it was not as effective as Buchanan contends. However, this does not mean that there were not Spanish paintings in British collections before the 19th century. In the 1720's an important series of Zurbar´n's Jacob and his twelve sons (Auckland Castle) reached Britain to be eventually bought in 1756 by the Bishop of Durham, where it has been kept thereafter. Collectors were, though, mostly politicians, noblemen and diplomats, like the Duke of Buccleuch, Sir Robert Walpole, the Earl of Harrington, and Sir Benjamin Keene.3 Also important was the sale of some excellent collections, like the Duke of Orléans' collection which contained paintings by Murillo, Ribera and Vel´zquez, sold in 1798; also the Calonne collection, with the distinctive feature that it contained paintings by Luis de Morales, sold in 1795. In addition to this, since the last decades of the 18th century British collectors had presented some of their pieces in exhibitions held, among others, in the Royal Academy. Accompanied by a small catalogue or leaflet with information about the pieces presented, these exhibitions also contributed to the spread of those collections, sometimes displayed with a view to selling them. Artistic charities like the British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts, opened in 1805, which initially ran the National Gallery, founded in 1824, add to these Old Masters's display locations.


The Peninsular War had many consequences regarding the knowledge of the Spanish school outside Spain. Such knowledge was newly promoted by several key factors: (1) the context of war and general spoliation that it caused due to lack of control on the movement of art works; (2) the "desamortización" [confiscation] of 1809, that changed the location of many pictures; (3) the sale of collections held by the owners, who in many cases had no choice either for monetary pressure or survival reasons. To sum up, the war context promoted looting and enabled many art merchants, and also politicians, as well as Napoleon's generals to take advantage of this situation sending agents or going themselves to Spain in order to purchase art works for ridiculous prices, or just to plunder them, only to sell them later back in their countries of origin or wherever the art market was stronger. This exportation of art was possible due to lack of effective protection regulations against it, despite the Floridablanca Decree [1779] that had been recovered by Joseph Bonaparte in 1809 and which forbade exportation of art and national heritage.


The figure of William Buchanan arises in this context. He actively participated in these activities via George Augustus Wallis. This artist arrived in Spain from Lisbon in October 1807 and stayed in the country until 1812. The outcome of his journey is recorded in Buchanan's Memoirs of painting, published in two volumes in 1824. Forty-six pages of the second volume include the transcription of Wallis' letters and his own comments expressed in the third person and describing his Spanish experience. Buchanan starts his account about Spanish importations by presenting himself as a kind of an "art protector", as opposed to the French generals who were plundering from the convents the finest works of the great masters of the Spanish school. He also refers to the interception of some paintings he purchased in Italy that were in Algeciras in order to justify Wallis' mission in Spain.


After reading Buchanan's memoirs it is possible to state that he knew what he was looking for, or what Wallis should look for on his behalf: always concerned with Spanish Masters, he was mainly searching for Murillo's and Velazquez's paintings because he knew that those would be easier to sell, and for a profitable price, once in the UK. Contacts where essential in this mission. This may be seen when he refers to another agent and associate called James Campbell, who was in Cadiz and also acquired some Murillos. Maybe the fact that Buchanan already had experience with the process after buying many pieces in Italy during the Napoleonic wars facilitated the accomplishment of the exportation from Spain. Also, he might have used some sources to establish his preferences and also in order to identify collections and paintings of his interest. For example, he mentions in his memoirs Antonio Ponz's descriptions included in Viage de España.4


From Buchanan's memoirs it is possible to obtain information about several aspects regarding the changes in the perception and the availability of the Spanish school in the UK. Nevertheless, it is important to begin with a brief analysis of his views regarding the context of the war and Spanish collections. Buchanan refers to difficulties encountered by Wallis on many occasions in order to present Wallis' mission in its context, but also in order to give it a special value as it was developed in a country that was being seized by the French and in war against them. He refers to the risks and hardships he had to undergo and the seizing of his property, and that "he had to encounter dangers, and to suffer inconveniences and privations of the most serious description, and which he could never have overcome".5 He also mentions problems regarding the delay in receiving and sending correspondence, and the removal of paintings. On his way back to the UK in 1813, Wallis himself had to make a detour of Germany. He also had problems with the money supplies as, upon arrival at Lisbon, the banking houses where his credit was had fled. The same was to happen later in Madrid regarding the French houses in which he also had had credit. As for his political orientation, it changed depending on who was on the best side: sometimes he admired the French while some other times he admired the "Spaniards". He came close to one side or another depending on his interests, always with the idea of looking for paintings worth buying.


Regarding Spanish collections, Buchanan states the high quantity of pictures that are all over the country, as if they were available for anyone interested in them, without referring in any case to the Spanish regulations or the rights of the owners. He does so, however, with reference to the benefits he expects to get thanks to the context. He describes Wallis' activity as a positive one because without that many of the paintings would still be on the walls of cloistered convents or other private places.

[Without] the mission of Wallis to Spain, and his industrious researches after works of art, England would never have had an opportunity afforded her of possessing those fine pictures, which, in all probability, would still have been on the walls of the convent of Loeches.6

Buchanan mentions the sale of important collections belonging to different noblemen like the Prince of Peace (Godoy), the Duke of Alba, and the Duke of Hijar, which were put into sale because their owners were considered traitors by the resistance government. In some cases, the prices demanded on these sales were quite high, as Wallis states regarding a group of Murillos belonging to the St. Jago collection (Marquis de Santiago) in Madrid. Buchanan presents himself as having been right by acquiring those artworks but he forgets about regulations and does not worry about the fact that some of the paintings belonged to the most powerful collector in Spain, the Crown. He even refers to the institution to demonstrate the provenance of some paintings, which shows that he took advantage of the war context.


Wallis and Buchanan's perception of the Spanish artists is also frequently found along the Memoirs, not only regarding the Spanish imports but also while describing other collections. In this description of the Marquis de Santiago collection, Wallis demonstrates his interest for the Spanish school because he names several artists apart from Murillo and Vel´zquez, he values the school's artistic approach, and uses positive terms that would not be seen in other British sources until the 1840's.

Of the Spanish Schools we have no idea whatever in England. If they could see the two or three best Murillos of the St. Iago family, and some of the fine pictures of Velasquez, Alonzo Canno, Pereda, Zuberan . . . and del Greco, really first-rate men, whose works are quite unknown out of Spain, some estimate of the high excellence of this school might then be formed. This school is rich beyond idea, and its painters are all great colourists: some of their colossal works are surprising. If you had time and could bear the horrors of travelling in Spain it would be worth while to visit this country. After all, I must own I have, as an artist, learnt a great deal from this admirable school.7

On another occasion he also states that there are other pictures by artists whose works are not well known but possess great brilliancy and colour, without providing more details about them but giving, once again, pioneer details on Spanish art characterisation.


The entrance of these paintings into the UK had no precedent, in the sense that it was extensive and included an important number of first-rate art works such as some paintings by Vel´zquez, like Venus and Cupid (London, The National Gallery) and Portrait of a man, nowadays considered from his workshop (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), and some of Murillo's religious paintings like Laban searching for his stolen Gods (Cleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art), and Virgin and child (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art). All comments about Spanish artists are positive and prove Wallis' and Buchanan's admiration for that school. This included paintings by almost unknown artists who since then started to enter the market circuits. From the information gathered in the sales catalogues and studied by other scholars, in 1805 the presence of Spanish painting in the UK was 1%, while in the decade of 1810 it increased up to 60%.


As it can be seen in the text quoted above, some of the names are wrongly spelt. Confusion in the spelling of artists' names was quite common and it was also found in sales catalogues. Nevertheless, Buchanan shows an interest in the authorship of the paintings, which means a step forward towards the recognition of this school, providing information about their provenance. In other words, Buchanan's attitude reflects that the authenticity of paintings started to be an issue, which developed with the evolution of the art market from this period until nowadays. He also clarifies that some artists have usually been classed as belonging to the Neapolitan school, noting that Italian writers were willing to rank Spanish artists like Velazquez and Ribera as belonging to their own country:

From the political relationship which existed between the courts of Spain and Naples, it sometimes occurs that Spanish painters have been classed as belonging to this school. This is certainly erroneous, and must have taken its origin from a desire on the part of Italian writers to attach as much importance to their own country as the possibly could, by ranking Velasquez and Spagnoletto as belonging to their own schools.8

The classification of the Spanish school as a branch of the Italian one was often found in sales catalogues and other written sources. Until Robert Ford and William Stirling in the 1840's, no one would mention these questions as Buchanan/Wallis did. Their perception and interest were therefore pioneer, as compared to other specialists.


Regarding their destination, some of the paintings exported by Wallis eventually returned to Spain (mostly the ones that had been taken from the Royal Palace). Others were sold to French collectors like La Perriere, and even entered the Louvre Museum. However, many remained in the United Kingdom, though their trace has been in many cases lost and their attribution modified. Among the buyers we have important names like the Danish diplomat Mr. Edmund Bourke, who lived in Spain between 1801 and 1811. Many paintings in his collection were resold in private and public sales after his death in 1821, and some are today in the Museum of Fine Arts of Budapest. Other buyers were politicians like the Earl of Grosvenor (Vel´zquez and Murillo's Laban searching for the Gods), the Marquis of Lansdowne (Vel´zquez), and the Earl of Carlisle (Vel´zquez and Murillo), diplomats like Lord Berwick (who bought Murillo's Virgin and child), dealers like Mr. Harris of Bond Street, and bankers like Sir Thomas Baring and Mr. Coesvelt, an agent from Holland. Some of their purchased collections were later sold to Alexander I of Russia and are now in the Hermitage. However, the sale of these paintings once in the UK was not as successful as Buchanan had expected. He tried to sell them all together, but could not find a collector interested in buying the whole lot. This lack of success prevented Buchanan from carrying on purchasing any more paintings from Spain thereafter.


A few years after Wallis' mission had ended, some collections that included paintings from Buchanan's imports were sold in the United Kingdom, because after the war the benefits from the sales were there higher than in other countries like France. Among those was James Campbell's collection, sold very soon, in 1815. Lucien Bonaparte's collection and Sebastiani's collection, both sold in London, are also described in Buchanan's memoirs. In this sense, this book was a key element for the reception of the Spanish school in the UK, not only regarding the pages devoted to Spain imports but also for the description of many collections that included Spanish art. In conclusion, the sudden availability of Spanish (and other) paintings in the London art market increased the number and type of collectors and changed the scene thereafter. This availability contributed to the shifting of Spanish Art to the United States after North American collectors and dealers entered the art market circuit some decades later.


This analysis makes it possible to confirm the relevance of Buchanan's account in many senses: It is a first hand testimony, transmitted by Wallis' correspondence, about the situation in Spain; the state of travelling, communication, banks; and the art trade, information about collectors and other agents. Wallis seems to have accomplished his mission quite successfully. As an artist, he could appreciate the features of the Spanish school, and value its painters, so Buchanan's choice was right and, in that sense, positive for the Spanish artists. However, it was not that favourable for collectors nor for the Spanish National Heritage as many of these paintings never returned to Spain. Although in most cases they had been bought legally, and permitted to be exported, questions were later raised whether that had been actually was licit or not.

Biographical Notice

Rocío Coletes Laspra holds a PhD in Art History (2015) on 19th century Spanish Orientalist painting. She also holds a Masters' Degree in Museum Studies and Art History Research from l'École du Louvre (Paris), and has worked in art galleries, museums and other cultural institutions in Spain, France, Ireland and the United Arab Emirates. Her publications on art history include articles in academic journals, conference proceedings and translations. In 2008 she successfully submitted her Degree Dissertation on Spanish paintings in the Wellington collection in Apsley House (London). This fostered her interest in Anglo-Spanish art relations in the Romantic age, which she has kept ever since.

End Notes

1. William Buchanan, Memoirs of painting with a chronological history of the importation of pictures by the Great Masters into England since the French Revolution, London: R. Ackermann, 1824.

2. Richard Twiss, Travels through Portugal and Spain in 1772 and 1773, London: The Author, 1775. See comments on page 311.

3. Respectively: Henry Scott, 3rd Duke of Buccleuch, married to Lady Elisabeth Montagu, famous for her salons and promotion of artists; Prime Minister in the 18th C; William Stanhope, ambassador in Madrid 1720-1727, ambassador in Madrid in the 1730's and the 1740's.

4. Antonio Ponz, Viage de España, Madrid: Viuda de Ibarra, 1787-1793.

5. Buchanan, 1824, vol. II, p. 204.

6. Buchanan, 1824, vol. II, p. 224.

7. Buchanan, 1824, vol. II, p. 229.

8. Buchanan, 1824, vol. I, p. 141.


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