About the artwork
Early in his career the Aberdeen-born artist John Phillip gained a reputation for his Scottish genre scenes in the manner of Wilkie (1785-1841). However, it was his depictions of Spanish subjects made during the final 15 years of his life that earned him widespread popularity and the esteem of fellow painters and patrons, as well as a healthy income. These luminous, richly coloured paintings inspired by his contact with Spanish culture and art during extended visits, captured the warm sunny climate, and the gaiety and passion of the Spanish people, and earned him the title ‘Phillip of Spain’.
Phillip was very much a British artist and a child of his time, delighting in the Victorian love of narrative. His pictures of Spain are filled with human incident, illustrating the lifestyle of the people he encountered - the charms of beautiful young señoritas and flamboyant contrabandistas. Like the romanticised account of life in Spain given by the American writer Washington Irving in The Alhambra (1832), Phillip’s paintings evoke a sense of mystery and vibrancy. His pictures of gypsy musicians, monks and priests, and street scenes of groups clad in bright, decorative shawls and robes, created the vision of an exotic southern landscape that contrasted with the bleak Victorian cities at home. Due to their popularity, Phillip’s representations helped form romantic notions of Spain in the British imagination at that time.
Spanish painting had been largely unknown in Britain before 1800. Spain did not form part of the traditional 18th century grand tour and was considered wild and uncivilised well into the 1800s. During the course of the 19th century, however, knowledge of Spain’s cultural and artistic traditions became more widely known to English speaking audiences through books like Irving’s and Richard Ford’s Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845). Appreciation for the 17th and 18th century Spanish masters grew quickly as increasing numbers of artworks came on the market from the close of the Peninsular War (1808-1814); while William Stirling-Maxwell’s Annals of the Artists in Spain provided the first comprehensive study of the subject in English when it appeared in 1848.
In 1851 when he was in his mid-30s Philip made his first visit to Spain, following in the footsteps of Scottish painters of an earlier generation, including Wilkie, William Allan (1782-1859) and David Roberts (1796-1864). The influence of Spanish art and life had an enormous affect on his painting, in terms of both subject and technique.
The Lady Lever Art Gallery’s 'La Lotería Nacional: Buying the Tickets' is a compositional sketch in oil for the larger unfinished picture of the same name held at the McManus Art Gallery, Dundee, which Phillip began in Seville during his third and final trip in 1861. This visit, in which he spent time in Madrid, Segovia, Toledo, Cordoba as well as Seville, was to have the greatest impact on his art. In addition to producing numerous sketches and paintings, and several watercolours, he dedicated time to making a serious study of Velázquez copying Las Meninas, among other pictures, in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of the technique of the master of Spain’s Golden Age. In the works of this final period – the six years prior to his untimely death in 1867 – Philip adopted a looser painterly style, in combination with an increasingly dramatic use of light and shade; his use of strong colour being intensified by the addition of black. These new pictorial strengths are evident in the unfinished La Lotería Nacional: Buying the Tickets and its companion picture 'La Lotería Nacional: Reading the Numbers' housed at Aberdeen Art Gallery.
The subject that unites the paintings is the Spanish National Lottery, established in 1812 and the oldest of its kind in the world. The pictures illustrate this widely popular institution, dramatising the human interest factor through gesture and emotion, the careful arrangement of figures and the use of intense light and shade. Taken together they narrate the before and after of this very social occasion - the build-up when individual ticket buyers safely guard their numbers, and the climax as they check their tickets against the winning numbers and react to the outcome. A number of the characters make an appearance in both scenes. The colourful cast includes a priest and a young girl with her shopping basket, as well as a well-heeled couple who emerge only in the second scene.
In the Lotería Nacional pictures Phillip remains true to the conventions of Victorian narrative painting, carefully orchestrating composition, gesture, colour and light to clearly convey the story he is telling. For him, the classical building converted into an official Lottery office, the bright sunlight and the decorative fabrics and rich colours of costumes are a means of representing the vitality of Spanish life and climate. As was his custom, he offers a somewhat sentimental vision of the life he saw, revealing an aspect of Spanish culture – state organised gambling - that would be considered both novel and fascinating to audiences back in Britain. Phillip’s romanticised paintings of Spain conform in many ways to the 19th century orientalist tradition in which European artist-travellers set out to represent southern lands and ancient cultures. These representations highlighted the exoticness of the foreign lands visited – usually North Africa and the Middle East – representing the cultures found as ‘other’ (and implicitly inferior) to those of Europe.
Lord Lever purchased the oil sketch for 'La Lotería Nacional: Buying the Tickets' at the 1904 sale of James Orrock, his long-time advisor on art. Orrock had bought the painting at the artist’s studio sale in 1867. An amateur artist and collector, he had studied with the Scottish artist Stewart Smith, a close friend of Phillip.