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When Goya tried to kill Lord Wellington
16 March 2010 @ 19:28

In August, 1812, immediately after victory in the Battle of the Arapiles and after Jose I fled the Court, the allies entered Madrid.  The anglo-hispano-portugese army, led by General Álava and Lord Wellington were warmly welcomed by the people of Madrid with rousing ovations.   Rowdy and lively by nature, the Madrileños went crazy over the English and in particular, over the Highlanders, for their unusual clothing and their fervent Catholicism.

Wellington, however, was stand-offish, disagreeable and with a permanent frown and in his few dealings with the Spanish authorities who showered him with gifts to try to make him smile, he was notably cold.   Once he knew the French had been driven out, there was only one thought  behind his furrowed brow that gave him any pleasure, and that was the idea of having his portrait painted by Goya. 

He knew that Goya, that magical painter, lived in Madrid.  Although not from the city, he was a Madrileño in his heart.  Wellington knew that his accomplice, General Álava, was a great friend of the painter and so suggested to him that he do the necessary introductions and requests.  Álava made hints to Wellington about Goya’s personality, that he wasn’t a particularly pleasant character with people he didn’t know.  Despite the fact that the painter would of course know about Wellington’s talents and know that he was no social climber, he also advised him that the painter tended to charge exorbitant fees for painting portraits.  Despite all this, Wellington, Álava and their escorts headed over to see Don Francisco de Goya.

Goya lived in a house with gardens and farm land on the other side of the Manzanares river (Estación de Villa del Prado).   Given the personalities of those involved, the greetings on arrival were somewhat frosty.  Both equally brusque and surly, and Goya being unsociable and half deaf, it was quite a sight.  Due to the dexterity of his hands, compared with the lack of it in his hearing, an hour was enough for Goya to do the rough outline of a portrait.  Without wasting any time and wanting the Englishman to leave as soon as possible, Goya got straight on with the painting.  When he had placed Wellington’s face on the canvas, he decided to show it to him so that the Islander could see how it was coming along.  In showing it to him, he used tremendous skill and trust and with his finger, beckoned to the Irishman to come closer as he turned the easel around.  Unaccustomed to people gesturing to him, in particular with their hands, Wellington very reluctantly complied.  On laying his eyes on the painting, the General  could do nothing else but show a gesture of his disgust.

Javier Goya, the educated and English-speaking son of the painter at this point stepped in, anticipating the reaction of his father on seeing Wellington’s look of complete displeasure.  He spoke to him in Wellington’s native language and tried to convince him of the compassion and the skill of the drawing.  The Briton replied to this, moving his head stiffly and saying in a slow, low voice, “no, no”.  Goya, who understood nothing, or who pretended not to understand, angrily cleaned his brushes, with a false smile whilst he waited for the praise, the usual postscript to his work.  On realizing what was happening and that the praise was not forthcoming, he looked questioningly at General Wellington, meanwhile General Álava didn’t know quite where to put himself. 

The show played out as follows:

Wellington with a face as sour as vinegar, Goya with a face like a bull about to charge, Javier Goya looking at both of them, talking in English and Spanish at the same time until the arrogant aristocrat picked up his hat and prepared to leave without a word. 

Goya had the unusual habit, as many habits tend to be, of keeping a couple of pistols close to hand whilst he painted.  Javier Goya shuddered when he saw his father’s gaze moving between Wellington’s face and his pistols.   Suddenly Francisco de Goya reached for his pistols and anticipating his father’s move, his son threw himself onto his father to stop him whilst General Álava bundled out the victor of Arapiles, telling him that the artist was crazy.  The great hero almost lost his life in the home of the deaf artist, without even reaching Waterloo.  Goya went on to do three portraits of Wellington; two oil paintings and one in red chalk.

Written by Jesús Castro

Translated by Rachael Harrison

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