The Spoils of War : Godoy and Guercino

Detail of hand written notes made by Sir Denis Mahon
Part of the Italian Archives

Provenance of the Painting

Guercino’s painting, "Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph", in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, holds an extraordinary history. It was donated to the Gallery in 1997, by its then owner, the art collector and connoisseur Sir Denis Mahon (1910-2011). It had been in his possession, hanging on the walls of his house in London, since 1934 after he purchased it from a Parisian art dealer, J. G. Cloots. The story of the painting can be traced via the political turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, to an auction in Cheltenham, England, where it was viewed by the National Gallery of Ireland’s first director George Mulvany, in 1859.  

Ferrara and Madrid

Commissioned in 1620 by Cardinal Jacopo Serra, papal legate at Ferrara in Italy, the painting was first documented by Guercino's first biographer Malvasia in 1678. It then passed through Serra's family before being gifted to Don Juan de Cabrera, Spain's ambassador to Pope Innocent X. De Cabrera founded the church of San Pascual Bailón in Madrid in 1683, where the painting, along with many other Italian baroque paintings adorned the interior of the church.

The painting was the first painting purchased by Sir Denis Mahon. His thorough research into the provenance includes careful notes taken from a book in his possession entitled Viaje de España by Antonio Ponz. Published in 1776 it describes the painting as being displayed in San Pascual, Madrid. Mahon's forensic research is evidenced here, particularly in the way he pieced together the provenance of the Guercino by examining past literary sources. His research into Guercino’s "Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph" was published to great acclaim in his first book Studies in Seicento Art and Theory. This seminal book was published in 1947, as was his edition of Viaje de España by Antonio Ponz, and therefore it is very likely that the hand written notes date from the same year, or shortly before. The painting remained in San Pascual for 120 years, until 1803 when political turmoil in Spain led to its removal.

Beside it is a Guercino, a painting with four figures and which shows Jacob in his bed giving his blessing to Efrain and Manases, a work of great impact and naturalism.

Extract of the Viaje de España, in Mahon's research notes (English translation)

Hiding Under Old Carpets

In 1801, with support from France, Spain declared war on Portugal. A man named Manuel Godoy was head of the victorious army in the so-called ‘War of the Oranges’. Godoy, who came from a family of Spanish nobles, entered the service of the Royal Bodyguard in 1784. An ambitious officer turned politician, he was now one of the most powerful men in the country and as befitting his rank, he amassed a collection of 1,100 old master paintings from private collections and churches, including the Guercino from San Pascual. He displayed his collection at his residence at the Grimaldi Palace which was situated directly opposite the Royal Palace in Madrid.  Manuel Godoy was a great supporter of Francisco de Goya and provided him with important commissions and patrons.

In 1807 Godoy negotiated the Treaty of Fontainebleau with France, this (inadvertently) led to his fall from power. As a consequence, the Guercino painting  was once again to move across Europe. The Treaty’s plan was to expel the Portuguese Royal family and partition Portugal up into three regions. To enforce this coup d’état a French army then moved south across the Pyrenees to invade Portugal, and in doing so occupied Spain. This in turn led to a civil revolt by the Spanish populace and the ensuing Peninsular War (1808-1814).  On March 18th, 1808, a popular revolt against the French occupation rose up in Madrid and a mob entered the Grimaldi palace searching for Godoy.

They searched his palace and ransacked it, but there was no sign of the royal favourite. He had taken refuge in an attic, where he spent the next thirty-six hours hidden under a pile of old carpets, half suffocated..."

Goya, Robert Hughes, p. 250

The Painting Travels Again

Godoy eventually emerged the next morning, bloodied and bruised. He was arrested, and eventually forced into exile in Paris, and his collection of paintings in Madrid was dispersed. Only 284 paintings eventually returned to Spain, representing one fifth of his collection. Intriguingly, the Guercino was not recorded in Godoy’s 1813 inventory of paintings, and it was therefore likely to have been “appropriated” by its new owner of whom nothing is known. It is very likely that since the painting next pops up in England 30 years later, it was “carted off” as loot by an enterprising British army officer, following the victorious entry of Wellington into Madrid in August 1812. Indeed recent research indicates that the vast majority of Godoy's paintings went to Britain, following the chaos that ensued during and after the Peninsular War (London and the emergence of a European art market, p. 249).

The Guercino painting next reappears in England where it was recorded as being in the collection of T. S. Cave, and then onto Lord Northwick in 1843. Following the death of Lord Northwick, his collection of old masters, including the Guercino, was put up for auction in a 22-day sale at his mansion, Thirlestaine House, Cheltenham held from the 26th July to the 29th August 1859. Annotations in the catalogue are evidence that it was an important auction, as the National Gallery, London was to buy several paintings at this sale.

Dublin Déjà Vu?

Incredibly, the library of the National Gallery of Ireland has a copy of this auction catalogue, inscribed and dated by the Gallery’s first director George Mulvany who also sought to purchase paintings at this sale for the new established National Gallery in Dublin. We have further confirmation that Mulvany attended the sale in the Minutes of the Board dated 27th August 1859.  The minutes record that George Mulvany read out an account of his recent trip to Cheltenham in which he mentions how he had planned to purchase, with the support of Sir Charles Eastlake, six “Northwick” pictures with a combined estimated of £3,100.

Mulvany reports that his venture was a “failure” as he did not have authorisation from the Treasury Office, London to purchase the six paintings. The catalogue shows that the Guercino (Lot 1513) was on show in the "Principal Gallery" of the house, and sold on 18th August 1859. It is highly likely Mulvany would have viewed the Guercino, as firstly it was displayed in the grandest room of the mansion (with the finest and largest works of the Northwick collection on the walls), and secondly because the sale of an Alonso Cano (Lot 1600) which Mulvany wanted to purchase, was auctioned the day after the Guercino's sale, in the adjoining bedroom sale.

Mulvany's auction catalogue is dated July 1859 and it therefore indicates that the director was present in Cheltenham for the entirety of the auction until its termination in late August which furthermore explains why he made his presentation to the Board on the 29th. Could the gallery’s director have ever imagined that 140 years later the same painting would be hanging on the walls of the National Gallery of Ireland?

Further Reading

Viaje de España, Antonio Ponz, 1776 (1947 reprint)

Catalogue of the late Lord Northwick’s extensive and magnificent collection of ancient and modern pictures… at Thirlestane House, Cheltenham, Tuesday the 26th of July, 1859 and twenty-one subsequent dates (personal copy of George Mulvany)

Studies in Seicento art and theory, Denis Mahon (1947)

Italian Art and Britain. Royal Academy of Arts, Winter exhibition (1960)

Discovering the Italian Baroque: the Denis Mahon Collection, Gabrielle Finaldi and Michael Kitson (1997)

Goya, Robert Hughes (2003)

Goya: the portraits, Xavier Bray (2016)

London and the emergence of a European art market, [eds] Susanna Avery-Quash and Christian Huemer (2019)


Andrew Moore, Library assistant

Published online: 2023