Dawson Carr is the approachable but authoritative curator of Later Italian and Spanish Painting at the National Gallery. Talking to him you soon sense a total engagement with his work. He was born in Miami and worked at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for 16 years. Armed with a tape recorder I met him mid-morning in a quiet corner of the Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing restaurant. I knew that he had studied stage design and written a book on Mantegna. He also curated the National Gallery’s recent show of late Caravaggios, an event which attracted a quarter of a million visitors. It is surely a crowning moment in his career that he is currently the curator of the major Velázquez exhibition which opens on Wednesday — the first ever to be held in Britain. He points out that ‘we are going to have the greatest ensemble, perhaps ever, of early pictures in the first room’.
The fact that London is having a Velázquez show at all, let alone a major one, is a matter of some astonishment. Those of us who were lucky enough to see the magnificent survey of 1990 at the Prado in Madrid were resigned to the prospect of ending our days without seeing another one. Nobody expects the Prado to lend the matchless ‘Las Meninas’, of course, or paintings as large as ‘Las Hilanderas’ (‘The Spinners’), but here we are 16 years later with a show of almost half the Spanish master’s total output, an output which Carr puts at ‘somewhere just above 90’ pictures. My first main question to him had two conflicting prongs therefore. ‘How come so soon after the Madrid show of 1990?’ and paradoxically — given that such an unexpected coup has at last proved possible — ‘What took the National Gallery so long?’
Dawson Carr’s answer was simple. As many will suspect, the coup was a case of timing and quid pro quo. When he arrived at the National Gallery in 2003, Carr had been quick to emphasise to his colleagues the significance of having ‘the best collection of Velázquez’s work outside the Prado, bar none’. Miraculously, in the same year he encountered ‘a political opportunity that we capitalised on. It came up that the Prado was very keen to do a show on Velázquez as a history painter. They were going to call it Velázquez, Pintor de Fábulas and it was to include subject pictures. I didn’t know whether they had decided to include contemporary history paintings such as “The Surrender of Breda” but religious and mythological pictures were to be included.
‘Well, in point of fact the Prado needs us for that; they need five major Velázquez loans from us to do the exhibition properly, and more pictures potentially from other collections in Britain.’
In the London show there will be 15 paintings from Britain, 11 from Spain, seven from the USA and three from Austria. Loans from Russia, Germany, Ireland, Brazil, Italy and France are also expected, so the transport and travel bills are going to be horrendous.
Such a show would be impossible without sponsors — such as Abbey, now owned by Santander. ‘We have enjoyed a very special relationship that goes well beyond the normal.’ Sponsors don’t usually get involved in negotiating loans, for example, but in one case ‘because Santander is a Spanish bank it got the attention that I as a curator of the National Gallery in London would not have got’.
Carr’s biggest disappointment was not being able to borrow ‘Los Borrachos’ (‘The Drunkards’) from the Prado. On the other hand, the Prado has been most generous in lending the large ‘Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan’. In this painting Velázquez inimitably captures the amazed looks on the faces of some rough and humble blacksmiths when a god literally drops in on them.
The show’s catalogue had yet to arrive when we talked so I asked Carr if there had been major advances in Velázquez scholarship and expertise since 1990. ‘I would say no,’ he eventually replied. ‘This is an artist who has been very heavily worked on. That is not to say there isn’t anything new to say. The new parts that you will find in the catalogue are mainly to be found in two essays. One of them is an essay by our very fine conservator Larry Keith. Larry has written a technique essay and this is a conservator who has worked on Velázquez but who has not written about him before. Larry has come up with some interesting new takes on phenomena that you find in Velázquez paintings.’
At one point in the interview I thought I had a scoop — but Carr explained that the news had more or less ‘gotten out’. As lovers of Velázquez know, he painted only one female nude, ‘The Toilet of Venus’. The Spanish Church disapproved of it. Centuries later a British suffragette slashed it. Since then it has been having a quiet time until preparations for this show. ‘We took the Rokeby Venus out of its frame, had it up on an easel in the studio and out beyond her foot we noticed this patch of purple paint…Our scientists went in and took a minute sample of that paint and then a minute sample through the grey drape on which she rests and it turns out that the drape was not grey. It was purple.
‘There’s no doubt of it. It is a faded lake pigment…When it was functioning it must have been unbelievably rich. But art historians have, since time immemorial, made a great deal about this grey drape.’ A frisson of schadenfreude lingers in the air as we register the thought that other art historians have been wrong-footed.
A surprise of a different nature — a very welcome one — was in store. I asked if the National Gallery had ever considered doing important temporary exhibitions upstairs rather than in the bespoke exhibitions gallery in the basement — perfectly suitable for Caravaggio, who actually painted in basements. ‘We are doing this upstairs. Velázquez is upstairs. It will be a first, although it was contemplated with the Titian and El Greco shows. The natural light will of course be marvellous with Velázquez.’
Carr waxed eloquent about the master’s brushwork. ‘Up close, of course, it is marvellous paint on the surface, almost abstract…but as soon as you walk away a bit, it coalesces into images of people before you, existing before you, breathing before you…so distance is a big part of the reason we decided we had to do this upstairs.’
The normal gestation period for such a show is five years. Dawson Carr and his colleagues have done it in three. It would be surprising if a box-office record was not broken. ‘Now, of course, it is going to be crowded,’ he says. ‘I am going to hang it so that people can see over heads and shoulders.’
Velázquez opens at the National Gallery on 18 October and runs until 21 January 2007.