Colnaghi Foundation Journal 02 - Page 36



36
Francisco Ribalta’s Vision of Father Simó: British taste and the legacy of Sebastiano del Piombo in Spanish painting
Francisco Ribalta’s Vision of Father Simó: British taste and the legacy of Sebastiano del Piombo in Spanish painting
The kneeling figure of Father Simó was only
uncovered, and the painting correctly identified,
when it was cleaned at the National Gallery between
1945 and 1946.7
Despite the parlous condition of the painting, Ford
was an admirer of Ribalta’s work and described his
purchase in a letter to his friend, Henry Addington,
British Minister in Madrid, the very same month in
glowing terms:
I have been tempted by a certain
picture of Ribalta, and have given
11,000 reals for it, a large sum here,
or anywhere; but it is a stupendous
picture and one of the very grandest
class and worth £500.8
What makes Colnaghi Studies a particularly appropriate
destination for this article is that in a later letter of
December 1831 to another friend, the art dealer
with whom he most often dealt, Dominic Colnaghi,
Ford said of the painting: “I think [it] will astonish all
England.”9 It was Colnaghi who received the Ribalta
when Ford sent his first consignment of purchases
back to England in September 1832.
Fig. 2 / Francisco Ribalta,
Vision of Father Simó (prior to
conservation treatment), 1612,
oil on canvas, 210.8 x 110.5 cm,
London, National Gallery.
Ribalta’s painting, which has been in the National
Gallery since 1910, in both style and subject matter
has not since received the attention it merits, in
England at least. I have long been interested in
this picture therefore, not only in order to unpick
the artistic sources for the striking subject matter,
but also as a notable example of the English
taste for Spanish art. In fact, it offers a dual
study of reception: that of the reception of the
art of Sebastiano del Piombo into Spain and
that of Spanish art in England. Jeronimo Simó’s
case has been studied in recent historiography as
a classic example of frustrated sainthood at the
vital, transitional moment of the early seventeenth
century, and attention has also turned to the artistic
manifestations of his cult. No study, however,
has knitted together the original circumstances
of the creation of the painting and its intended
destination. Furthermore, the National Gallery
painting remains the seminal example of how the
Roman art of Sebastiano del Piombo, its ultimate
source, came to be not only copied and adapted
but also repurposed by Spanish artists in the postTridentine climate.
BY WAY OF BACKGROUND:
ENGLAND AND VALENCIA
This is also an appropriate moment to be writing this
article, for it comes just over a hundred years after the
purchase of the Vision of Father Jeronimo Simó (see fig. 1)
by the National Gallery in 1913, and coincides with
the painting’s re-appearance on public display. The
complex and intellectually difficult subject matter has
meant that this painting has not always received the
reception that Richard Ford expected. Despite Ford’s
high hopes as to what he could sell it for, the Ribalta
was bought-in at the sale of his Spanish pictures in June
1836 for a mere sixty-five pounds and two shillings.10 In
June 1913, it was ultimately sold by his grandson, also
Richard Ford, for £1000, to the National Gallery to
which it had been on loan for the previous three years.
Richard the younger employed a potent mixture of
playing hardball and sentimentality to encourage this
purchase of a painting which:
“My grand-father Richard Ford, the writer
on Spain, and his friend Stirling Maxwell,
thought very highly of… and I should be sorry
if they were not acquired by the nation.”11
Fig. 3 / Unknown Artist,
Portrait of a Knight of
Santiago, ca. 1610, oil on
canvas, 110.2 x 143.8 cm,
Lexington, University of
Kentucky Art Museum.
The Gallery, however, turned down the other painting
offered by Ford, a Murillo, Two Franciscan Monks, which
is now in the National Gallery of Canada.12
The elder Richard Ford is chiefly remembered today
as the author of the 1845 Handbook for Travellers in Spain.
37
Its two volumes were dedicated to Sir William Eden,
Baronet: “These pages are dedicated, in remembrance of
pleasant years spent in well-beloved Spain, by his sincere
friend, Richard Ford.”13 Eden’s seat was at Windlestone
Hall, and Eden too became a collector of Spanish
paintings. These included the third Ribalta at one
time in England, which Eden also bought in Valencia
in 1831: an extraordinary double portrait, A Knight of
Santiago and his Lady (fig. 3), an uncommon type in Spain
at this period. This work was then assumed to be a
self-portrait by Ribalta, although that identification
has since been problematized.14 The painting was sold
in 1975 and is now in the University of Kentucky
Art Museum. Ribalta was always a left-field choice in
English collections, with no paintings by him bought
into the country after 1831. Having made his purchase
of Ribalta’s Virgin and Child with Musical Angels, William
Bankes had had to write to reassure his parents on 20
October 1814: “…I am (surprised) that you do not
think more highly of the Ribalta, I thought it both
a good & an agreeable picture, & had the opinion of
several good judges before I bought it.”15
The enthusiasm for Spain that was shared between
Richard Ford and Sir William Eden can also be seen in
a letter that describes a visit Ford had paid to his friend
in the summer of 1850, almost twenty years after their
return to England:
Mrs Ford who is a learned ecclesiologist has
been enchanted with the cathedrals… but
most of all with princely Durham. How
fine the position is! Really it recalled timehonoured Toledo; among our visits, we have
been to Eden’s – Windlestone, a noble casa solar
… which cost some 100000£ in building...16
Fords’s romantic view of Spain suggests that he was
quite unaware of the very specific circumstances that
had motivated the commission of his own painting by
Ribalta. It is ironic that this great masterpiece of the
Spanish mystical tradition, mis-identified, should end up
in the hall of Ford’s country house outside Exeter where
Ford describes its hanging in a letter of December 1845
to the Oxford don, Sir Edmund Head.17
Despite the now correct identification of both the
subject and the artist, a label in Ford’s handwriting,
still pasted to the back of the painting, leaves various
questions unanswered. In it Ford states his belief that his
purchase was the painting by Ribalta that was described

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