‘Spain must be much more interesting than Liverpool,’ decided the 12-year-old Archer M. Huntington after buying a book on Spanish gypsies in the port city. The family of American railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington had just docked at the start of an 1882 European tour that would introduce Archer to the National Gallery and the Louvre. ‘I knew nothing about pictures,’ he later admitted, ‘but I knew instinctively that I was in a new world.’
It was the Hispanic world to which he was most attracted, and he hatched a plan to create a museum devoted to its study. His preparations were thorough; he learned Arabic as well as Spanish before setting off in 1892 on the first of three explorations of the Iberian Peninsula. He took a principled approach to art collecting: ‘To Spain I do not go as a plunderer,’ he vowed. ‘I will get my pictures outside [the country].’ By 1904 he had got enough to found the Hispanic Society of America, which opened its doors in Upper Manhattan four years later.
Given the British love of the Costa del Sol, we’re shamefully ignorant of Spanish culture, feeling more at home with French and Italian – an imbalance contemporary British philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer has helped to correct with the opening in 2021 of a Spanish Gallery in Bishop Auckland, whose castle boasts a collection of paintings by Zurbaran. Now the Royal Academy’s loan exhibition of treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library is offering Brits a crash course in all things Hispanic, starting with geometric-patterned earthenware vessels decorated by the Bell Beaker people of the third millennium BC and ending with sun-drenched Valencia beach scenes painted by Joaquin Sorolla in the 1900s.
A mix of Celtic, Islamic, Jewish and Christian with Amerindian, African and Asian influences via the Manila-to-Acapulco trade route, Hispanic culture is the ultimate melting pot, but through it all runs a sense of Spanish pride.