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Spanish 15th century paintings at the Lady Lever Art Gallery

The Lady Lever Art Gallery has the largest single public collection of fifteenth-century Spanish paintings in the country, numbering seven in all. All of them were bought by William Hesketh Lever in 1919 from the auction of the noted company lawyer Francis Beaufort Palmer (1845-1917). It is not known how, when or why Palmer acquired the paintings, but some had already entered the country from Spain by 1909. Palmer had been a member of the Burlington Fine Arts Club established in 1857 by the then Keeper of South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria & Albert Museum), John Charles Robinson, who advised private collectors on potential purchases. Robinson had a pioneering interest in early Spanish painting, sculpture and textiles.

By 1919 Lever was no longer buying solely to decorate his various houses around the country, but as here purchasing with an eye to expanding the gallery he had already started building in honour of his wife. Despite the fact that the taste for early Spanish painting was unusual Lever had to fight off competition at the 1919 auction, especially for the Virgin and Child enthroned with musical angels, which he bought for almost £950. He beat off the National Gallery in London whose failure to acquire it greatly annoyed its then director, Sir Charles Holmes. Holmes wrote in his memoirs in 1936 that: “Lord Leverhulme had outbidden us at Christie’s for a very fine Catalan primitive and had declined to transfer his purchase to the Nation when we begged him to do so.”

All of the Spanish paintings in Lever’s collection would originally have formed part of large multi-tiered altarpieces (retablo in Spanish), which could reach five or six metres high. A retablo was the product of collaboration between three main groups of craftsmen and artists: the carpenters or joiners (ensambladores) who created the tall, often heavy, structure needed to hold the images; the sculptors who carved the wood figures of individual saints and scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin; and the painters who were expected to paint (polychrome) the sculptures and wood reliefs and produce individual painted panels to insert into the retablo structure. In some regions of Spain the central and most important image would be a sculpture and in others it was a painting. In the port of Valencia (on the eastern coast) artists not only collaborated but often swapped and copied each others patterns and favourite compositions and had strong links with inland Aragonese artists and patrons, especially around the city of Zaragoza. 

The Virgin and Child enthroned was probably originally the central painting of a retablo. It is a particularly heavy work painted on three deep panels of chestnut wood which have been reinforced across the back with several thick battens cut in half. To judge by its style and composition it was painted sometime before the 1430s for a religious institution somewhere in the northern part of the kingdom of Aragon (central northern Spain) in the present-day provinces of Zaragoza or Huesca. It is close in style to a panel entitled after its kneeling donor, the Virgin of Mosén Esperandeu, which was painted in 1438-39 by an artist now identified as Blasco de Grañén, who worked in and around Zaragoza province between 1422 and 1459.

The Birth of the Virgin with the prophets Elijah and Amos, probably also comes from Zaragoza province. It is attributed on stylistic grounds to an unidentified artist known as the Master of Retascón, after a retablo in the village of Retascón near the town of Daroca (at the southern end of Zaragoza province). It is one small panel from a dismembered retablo dedicated to the Life of the Virgin, from which at least five other fragments survive in private and public collections in Spain and America. It is considered the anonymous artist’s most important known work painted sometime between 1400 and 1450. His distinctive figure style, which makes it possible to identify his works, is characterized by contorted, elongated bodies and nervy, sharp facial features.

When Lever bought the Birth of the Virgin (for £473) it was entitled the Birth of John the Baptist, a common misidentification. But the presence of the prophets Elijah and Amos both holding scrolls with verses praising the Virgin and the scenes painted on the other known panels from the same retablo make it clear that the Lever’s picture shows the Virgin’s birth. The position of the prophets to the left of the main narrative scene also indicates that the panel was originally on the left edge of a 3-tiered retablo and that the prophets in their raised framed niches acted as protection from dust and dirt for the rest of the picture or guardapolvos (as they were called in Spanish).

The Master of Retascón’s figure style derives from an artist of German origin Andrés Marzal de Sax (active 1394-1410), who was based in the thriving port of Valencia, one of Spain’s most important commercial centres. He worked with a Catalan artist Pere Nicolau. In turn Nicolau was the uncle of Jaume Mateu (active 1395-1443?) the artist who it has recently been suggested might be the painter of the Lady Lever’s four panels telling the story of the Martyrdom of St Ursula and her 11,000 virgin companions. Mateu was one of Valencia’s major artists and like his uncle (whose studio effects he inherited in 1408) he had links to the court of the Kings of Aragon.

Unlike the other fifteenth-century paintings in the Lady Lever we do know where the St. Ursula panels were painted for, thanks to a photograph taken in the 1880s. It was not for a church in Valencia or the Aragonese kingdom, but for the Dominican church of San Pablo in Palencia in the kingdom of Castile, some 350 miles from Valencia. Lever’s four panels came from the lower part of a four-metre high retablo which was dismantled when new altars were installed in San Pablo sometime between 1884 and 1909. The four scenes from the upper storey of the retablo are now in the Prado Museum in Madrid. San Pablo’s main altar held relics supposed to be the bones of some of St. Ursula’s companions and the church served as a burial place for local nobility of royal descent.

The St. Ursula panels were Artwork of the Month in April 2002 and the text can be found here.