Head of a Monk Attributed to Francisco de Zurbarán. Black chalk, grey wash with traces of pen and ink, 276 x 195 mm, c. 1635 - 1655 © The Trustees of the British Museum 1895,0915.873

The collection of Spanish drawings in the British Museum is one of the best outside Spain and includes works of exceptional quality. It comprises around 200 works with sheets by artists from the mid-16th to the 20th century. The collection has grown in a sporadic manner. The first acquisitions in the mid-19th century reflect the growing interest in Spanish art in Britain, encouraged, among other factors, by the publication of the two volumes of the Handbook for Travellers in Spain by Richard Ford (1845) and of Annals of the Artists of Spain by William Stirling Maxwell (1848). Both writers were also collectors: Ford assembled a large group of prints and drawings, including some by Murillo that he acquired in Seville, while Stirling Maxwell collected paintings and drawings. Among the first Spanish drawings to enter the British Museum were works from the collection of the Viscount of Castel Ruiz, purchased at auction at Christie’s in 1846. They included The Apotheosis of Saint Francis of Assisi by Teodoro Ardemans and Saint Ildefonso receives the Chasuble from the Virgin by Antonio de Pereda. This first acquisition by the British Museum of drawings from a Spanish collection would be followed by further purchases from Spain during the 19th century. The Castel Ruiz collection constituted an important group of 30 works. Some were attributed to Italian artists at the time but have recently been re-assigned to the Spanish school including Queen Esther fainting by Mosén Domingo Saura. In 1850, four years after the auction of 1846, the Museum purchased a key group of Spanish drawings from the London print dealer and publisher Henry Graves, including The garrotted Man by Goya, Saint tied to a Tree by Ribera, and Carducho’s The Storming of Rheinfelden.

In the second half of the 19th century the growing interest in Spanish drawings in Britain coincided with an increasing appreciation of Spanish art in general, evident in the creation of collections that specialised in other fields such as Spanish painting and the decorative arts. Four of the nearly 60 works attributed to Murillo that belonged to Alleyne Fitzherbert, Baron of St Helens, whose collection was sold in 1840, entered the British Museum, two of them in 1873 as a donation from James Hughes Anderdon. The splendid group of Spanish drawings assembled by the Museum encouraged the arrival of further works and in 1890 the collection was increased with two key drawings by Luis Paret y Alcázar and one by Miguel Jacinto Meléndez, which considerably strengthened the 18th-century holdings.

Among the 1,000 drawings that the Museum acquired in 1895 were some of the most finest Spanish sheets from the collection of John Malcolm of Poltalloch (1805-1893), a wealthy Scottish landowner and magistrate who lived in London. In 1860 Sir John Charles Robinson (1824-1913), director of the art collections at the new South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert Museum) sold Malcolm his notable collection of drawings. The importance of that group can be reconstructed through the catalogue of Malcolm’s drawings that Robinson produced in 1869. Over the following years Robinson continued to advise Malcolm on his acquisitions, travelling to Spain where, among other items, he acquired a group of drawings with the help of José Madrazo, director of the Museo del Prado and founder and director of the Real Establecimiento Litográfico in Madrid. They included Head of a Monk attributed to Zurbarán and The Assumption of the Virgin by Herrera Barnuevo. In the introduction to the 1869 catalogue Robinson set out the criteria that had guided him in building up Malcolm’s collection. Of the four rules that he considered essential, two were as follows: “Aside from the attribution, only collect examples of indisputable excellence as works of art”, and “In the case of less eminent masters, only acquire the most outstanding and best preserved examples.” It is clear that he applied these criteria in the case of the drawings by Zurbarán, Herrera Barnuevo and others that came to the British Museum from the same source.<7p>

In the 20th century a series of important acquisitions and donations further enriched the collection. Drawings from the collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) donated by Count Antoine Seilern in 1946 through Philipps’s grandson and heir Thomas Fitzroy Fenwick included magnificent drawings by Spanish artists, among them Christ struck by a Torturer by Ribera and The Last Supper by Luis Antonio Planes. This donation also included four sheets considered at the time to be by Velázquez but now attributed to the Florentine artist Jacopo Confortini (1602-1672). In the second half of the century and coinciding with the decline in interest in this field, the Museum was less able to acquire Spanish drawings, thus losing the opportunity to enlarge the collection with works by Goya that were still available at that time. The superb group of prints by that artist in the Museum’s collection arrived relatively late, in 1975, from the collection of the Hispanist Tomás Harris. Since then, Spanish drawings have only been acquired sporadically although there have been some excellent additions including the noteworthy Design for an Altarpiece in a Chapel by Sebastián de Herrera Barnuevo. Despite this and due to the generosity of the Ottley Group that funds the acquisition of Old Master drawings, in the past few years some important drawings have entered the collection, including Study of a male Nude with one Knee on the Ground by Juan Conchillos y Falcó and Christ distributing Bread to his Disciples by Miguel Barroso and Diego López de Escuriaz.

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