The making of a modern Spanish obsession

Between the tercentenary of the Spanish Armada (1888) and the end of World War I, an extraordinary transformation took place in British knowledge about Spain. Thanks to the twin pulls of Romantic Spain and the Spanish Civil War this transformation has been largely forgotten, but its implications are significant. From an exotic, primitive, distant and culturally monolithic country, the preserve of Romantic poets and travelling aristocrats, but largely inaccessible to ordinary Britons, Spain and its plural cultures now became public property as massive expansion of Spain’s railways and tourist infrastructure allowed ordinary visitors to travel beyond the traditional destinations of Madrid and Andalusia into Spain’s northern, eastern, central and western regions. This diversification coincided with the emergence of regional movements in the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia, each with their own strong and direct Anglo connections.

My research draws on a vast store of largely unstudied primary source material to trace the transformation of Spain’s plural cultures in the British popular imagination during this exciting period. It shows how the expansion of education, travel, publishing and communications created unprecedented opportunities for ordinary British people to tour Spain and see it for themselves, to visit the many proxies set up in art galleries, theatres and exhibitions throughout the UK, or to bring Spain and its cultures into their own homes, either directly through Spanish products, or indirectly through novels, music and art. It explores how, during these three decades, a new generation of Spanish experts emerged – journalists, businessmen, travel agents, academics, linguists and critics – whose job was to provide the tools to enable these new audiences to interpret Spain and Spanish culture for themselves.

1906royalwedding 2 jpg   1906royalwedding 1 JPG

Postcards of King Alfonso of Spain and his fiancee, the British Princess Ena of Battenberg, on their engagement in 1906.

The English Hispanophile Letitia Higgin wrote in 1904 that "‘Everyone goes to Spain nowadays, and almost everyone writes a book about it the moment he or she comes back," but it wasn’t only books: Spain was now discussed, analysed and argued over in university lecture rooms, private clubs, professional organisations and newspaper letters pages; Spanish music was played in concert halls, music halls and private sitting rooms; images of Spain and Spanish life circulated in magazines, travel books, illustrated novels, Hollywood movies, and the growing body of sumptuously-illustrated but reasonably-priced coffee table books marketed by publishers such as John Lane; Spanish tours, hotels, railways, cities and museums were promoted in the press and on provincial advertising hoardings, and the ‘Spanish soul’ celebrated and critiqued (in more or less equal measure) in the writings of those who had visited, and many who had not. Spain became a visible part of British public life, through popular events such as the tercentenary of the Armada, the Earl’s Court Spanish Exhibition (1889), the tercentenary of Don Quixote (1905), the Anglo-Spanish Royal Wedding (1906), the centenary of the Peninsular Wars (1908-12), and the failed ‘Sunny Spain’ exhibition of 1914.

Dr Kirsty Hooper
University of Liverpool

Kirsty was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2011; providing £70,000 over 24 months.