Magazine article The Spectator

Spain through True Blue Eyes

Magazine article The Spectator

Spain through True Blue Eyes

Article excerpt

Spain through true blue eyes RICHARD FORD, 1796-1858 by Ian Robertson Michael Russell, £28, pp. 381, ISBN 0859552853

Richard Ford is now a forgotten figure and we must be grateful to Ian Robertson for bringing him to life in this scholarly biography. His Handbook for Travellers in Spain was published in 1845 by John Murray as one of his guides for the middle-class tourists who had replaced the aristocrats of the Grand Tour. It must count as the most learned, long and lively guidebook ever published: a monster of 1,064 pages. But his interests extended beyond his hispanophile concerns and expertise on Spanish painting, making him a much respected figure in London literary and artistic circles in the early years of Queen Victoria.

Ford early made picture-buying Grand Tours. But he was not a landed aristocrat, rather a well-heeled member of the professional upper-middle class with aristocratic connections; a Wykehamist, he sent his son to Eton. In 1824 he married the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Essex. It was not a success, but it was to give his delicate wife the benefits of a warm climate that he went to Spain in 1830, to remain there for three years. His notebooks and sketches provided the raw material for the Handbook. But as Robertson's map of his travels reveals, there were large areas of Spain he could not cover in his travels. To plug the gaps he relied on books - he had a fine library - and his extensive correspondence with Spaniards. His vivid descriptions of unvisited towns left his readers with the impression that they were the result of personal inspection.

The gaps and this modest confidence trick were of little importance. He strove to present Spain on its own terms, but the strong prejudices which he shared with his unblemished hero the Duke of Wellington, whose campaigns are a main concern of the Handbook he cannot conceal. Take for example his devastating attacks on the Spanish aristocracy whom Wellington despised as 'uneducated and untravelled', 'popinjay butterflies', absentee landlords who allow noble 'patios' with their artistic treasures to become 'farmyards and dung heaps'. His francophobia turns the Handbook into a catalogue of the destruction and looting of Spain's artistic heritage by French generals in the Peninsular war. After his last visit to Paris, when France was our ally in the Crimean war, he writes, 'I have come back hating the French worse than ever.'

While he admires Castile, his portrait of Catalonia is a crude caricature, 'no place for a man of pleasure, taste or literature. …

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