When Vanessa suggested a spot of Winter sun, if I’m honest, I dragged my feet.
Locations where being proposed and I politely nodded.
When she casually mentioned a possible trip to Seville, my interest was piqued.
Seville was the birthplace and hometown of Spanish artist Diego Velázquez, and one of my favourite paintings is the ‘Waterseller of Seville’ by Velázquez, but I had never seen it in the flesh, was it even in Seville?
Caught up in the fever of ‘my’ trip, I got researching and discovered the painting was actually hanging much closer to home, in Apsley House, London.
Apsley House? Where’s that?
Well as it turns out, it’s known as Number One London and sits at Hyde Park Corner.
How had I missed it on all my gallery trips and what else was there?
Holy Moly! There’s a study for Pope Innocent X by Velázquez, there’s a Goya, in fact, there’s another portrait by Velázquez and some cracking portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence.
I shouted through to Vanessa ‘Do you fancy a trip to Knightsbridge?‘
Who knew train tickets could be booked so quickly?…
Number One London
Apsley House is an amazing Georgian building that I’d passed countless times over the years and hadn’t realised it was once the home of Arthur Wellesley, more commonly known as the 1st Duke of Wellington.
He bought Apsley in 1817 – just two years after his victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. In fact, the Duke’s impressive victories are the key to how many Spanish Masterpieces ended up in his private collection in London.
From this view, you can see an equestrian statue of the Duke opposite the house. I really like the way the monument has a relationship to the building because of its proximity to it, even though this wasn’t its original location.
It would make a great urban sketch from this angle, you’ve got that graphic silhouette of the sculpture next to the dark and light patterns in the columns and architectural detail of the house.
Wellington transformed Apsley House into a super palatial home. It was originally designed for Lord Apsley by architect Robert Adam, but the Duke expanded it with a three-storey extension to include a State Dining Room and fashionable apartments decorated in the latest Regency style.
Each room is packed with numerous art pieces, presented to him by European rulers grateful for his defeat of Napoleon. The first painting that grabbed me was a full-length portrait of Wellington at the top of the stairs.
Trying to step back to fully appreciate it, I found myself teetering on the edge of the top of the stairs and craning my neck. You really feel like you want to keep on moving back to recreate the position the artist was in when the work was first painted but its hanging position means you would just descend the staircase!
However, there’s a great example of a Sir Thomas Lawrence painting of the Duke as you move further through the house. You get to see his great use of brushstrokes and handling of colours to give us this confident, yet relaxed portrayal.
The Duke of Wellington, Sir Thomas Lawrence painted after the Battle of Waterloo
Thomas Lawrence was a fab portrait painter who had a real knack for capturing the character of the sitter, by using the figure to full effect.
He would start the painting by transferring a chalk drawing onto the canvas and then painting with long brushes and working ‘sight-size’.
Notice how he’s kept the colours and tonal contrast in the face very muted but then added all the vibrant colour and deep blacks in the rest of the composition. The white edge of his neckerchief helps to frame his face and there are some lovely scumbled reds on the jacket that give a real depth to the colour.
Below is an unfinished painting by Lawrence of the Duke, displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in London that gives us an insight into his underpainting technique. You can see the scumbled Raw Umber coloured ground, then a sketchy black chalk has been used to draw out the main elements and thicker paint has begun to build the structure of the head.
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 1829
Because of the strong, simple shapes in the composition, it still has a feeling of a body without any details at all.
The Waterloo Gallery
As I walked through the rooms I had one eye on the paintings and one eye out for where the Velázquez were hiding.
After Wellington became British Prime Minister in 1828, he commissioned a second phase of changes to Apsley, including cladding the whole house in Bath stone and adding an amazing 28-meter long gallery. Built to host sumptuous banquets, it also gave the Duke the chance to show off his important and ever-growing collection of paintings.
I’d hit gold.
The Waterloo Gallery opulently decorated in the style of Louis XIV
The Waterloo Banquet, 1836, William Salter
Astonishingly, 83 paintings in the collection were acquired by the Duke after his victory at the Battle of Vitoria, in 1813 (Vitoria-Gasteiz)
The paintings had originally been taken from the Spanish Royal Collection by Joseph Bonaparte, elder brother of Napoleon in what was called ‘the biggest loot in history’.
He was an experienced connoisseur of fine art with the power to take what he wanted from his new kingdom of Spain, so when he was forced to leave Madrid hastily, King Joseph took with him coachloads of treasures seized from Spain’s royal palaces and galleries and headed back to France.
One of the guides at the house told us that his ‘baggage train’ started off with over a 100 waggons but diminished on the way towards the French Border.
Paintings were used as packing, many taken from their wooden stretcher bars and rolled up, it’s a wonder how any of the paintings survived at all! Not only were there a number of Velázquez in the haul but countless other masterpieces such as the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck and important works by Correggio, Titian and Van Dyck.
Wellington was on his heels and finally launched his attack on Bonaparte in the Spanish city of Vitoria and the rescued masterpieces were sent onto the Duke of Wellington’s residence.
In peace time, the victorious Duke tried to return the Spanish Collection, but King Ferdinand VII of Spain answered by presenting the paintings to Wellington, as ‘well deserved’.
N.B. It is said that many other paintings and treasures from Madrid ended up spread over Europe as a result of some serious looting!
The Spanish Masterpieces
Portrait of a man, possible Nieto, 1635 -45, Diego Velázquez, © English Heritage, The Wellington Collection at Apsley House
Sitting discreetly, next to the doorway into the gallery was ‘Portrait of a Man’ by Velázquez, thought to be his friend Jose Nieto.
It’s got a real quietness to it even surrounded by the opulent red and gold of the room.
It feels sincere and captures the sitters depth and stillness. It’s subtle and a modest portrait with no obvious display of status.
But to fully appreciate the power of the work, you need to get walking.
Have you ever noticed how most people move around an exhibition?
About 2 to 4 feet back from the pictures, at an even speed, until something catches their eye and they might lean in slightly. If they’re really fascinated by the brush strokes they’ll go really close-up to the paint surface.
For Velázquez portraits, you need to take a different approach.
You need to step back.
If you take small steps back from the portrait, yet keeping your eyes transfixed on the painting, you’ll notice something magical happens.
When you get to a certain point the portrait suddenly comes into focus.
Marks and structures that you couldn’t see when up close to the painting suddenly appear that add a deeper sense of realism to the piece. Walk a step back and the effect is lost, a step too close and the portraits blurs again.
Velázquez is thought to have painted parts of his paintings ‘sight-size’.
Sight-size is a method of arranging the subject and the canvas to be painted on so the images can be compared directly next to each other as the same size.
To see the canvas and the subject at the same time you need to step back from the canvas, often 9-10 ft, depending on the size of the work.
Here is a comment by Palomino Antonio on Velázquez’s method:
“He did it with Pencils and Brushes, which had extreme long Handles which he sometimes made use of to paint at a greater Distance, and with more Boldness: so that near-hand, one does not know what to make of it; but far off, it is a Masterpiece.”
Palomino de Castro y Velasco, Antonio, 1655-1726, An Account of the Lives and Works of the most Eminent Spanish Painters, Sculptors and Architects and where their several performances are to be seen.
The Waterseller of Seville
The Waterseller of Seville, 1618, Diego Velázquez, © English Heritage, The Wellington Collection at Apsley House
It is a real luxury to experience viewing a painting you’ve looked at in books, in almost complete privacy.
The day we visited it was lovely and quiet in the house and the Waterseller of Seville was just hanging out casually with a study of the Pope Innocent X,
Surprisingly, neither painting had a title and I had to contain myself from stopping anyone walking past and pointing out the paintings to them.
It was magnificent to study the Waterseller. It was darker and more contrasty than the images I’d seen in books, with the figure in the background practically disappearing. It gave the painting more of a conversation and relationship between the Waterseller and the boy than I’d first thought.
Pope Innocent X, 1650, Diego Velázquez, © English Heritage, The Wellington Collection at Apsley House
The study of Pope Innocent X is a really great portrait with thick passages of opaque colour that seemed to melt into each other, yet still gave that convincing sense of the sitter. Again, this has that magical quality when you step back from it, the structure and features of the face come into full focus.
The full sized painting is on display in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome.
Seeing the paintings next to each other you can compare how Velázquez’s painting style had developed over 30 years to become looser, more painterly with broken edges and softer transitions.
Velázquez studied and trained in Seville but left for Madrid, age 24, in 1623 seeking new challenges and a sitting with the King.
Velázquez had a soft spot for the Waterseller, it was his ‘Mona Lisa’ and used it his calling card to Don Juan de Fonseca, Chaplain to the King to showcase his talents and techniques.
Fonseca bought the painting, sat for a portrait himself then presented him with a rare opportunity to paint a portrait of King Philip IV, who appointed Velázquez as one of his court painters and Madrid became his home for the rest of his life.
When Don Juan de Fonseca died, Velázquez valued his painting collection, giving the Waterseller the highest price and then promptly bought it back for himself.
Velázquez use of Tone
When we look at the tonal range of the figures, it’s fascinating to see just how close they are in tonal (black and white) value, yet each figure remains distinct and separate.
Notice how there is still that consistency of values between the shadow on the boys face, the ‘lights’ on the figure in the background and the shadows on the Waterseller’s face.
The only thing that is bringing the boys face into focus is the extreme light on the light side of his face and the difference in hue, cooler and greener where the Waterseller is warmer and pinker.
Keeping the lights simple
Velázquez keeps a reserved handling of the lights that brings a face to life from across a room.
It’s a common mistake to paint highlights on the skin – too light. What is often perceived as bright white, is actually only slighter lighter in tonal value than the rest of the face.
When you look at the image above in colour, the highlight on the forehead is clearly visible. Notice on the black and white version the highlight is now difficult to make out because of the subtle shift in tone. It’s the difference in warm and cool colour temperature or hue that is helping with the illusion of light fall.
This method of having a simple and compressed range of tones in the lighter values was echoed by the artist and tutor Carolus-Duran who was a great fan of Velázquez.
“When you think you see in Nature lights as white as you are painting them, light as you think you see you painted them, hold up your pocket handkerchief against them and you will see the great difference between them and whiteness.”
The Contemporary Review, In the Studio of Carolus Duran, 1888
“That is how Velázquez would paint it, with a mere nothing. That is how I, with rather less skill, should paint it too. Done like that is should hardly take six minutes to paint, but done in the way some people go to work you might toil at it for six days and then not reach it. Paint like Velázquez, gentleman. Ah Velázquez!”
The Contemporary Review, In the Studio of Carolus Duran, 1888
So did Vanessa ever get her Winter sun?
Indeed, we had a lovely time on the south coast of Portugal, eating freshly caught fish and drinking Super Bocks.
Now I’m even more intrigued by the other Velázquez paintings I haven’t seen in the flesh, I wonder if I can weave a trip to the Museo del Prado cunningly disguised as a shopping trip to Madrid…
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