The risky appeal of the common people

Exploring the Hispanic-Anglosphere…




© National Trust online collection record (left and top, under revision): NT 32653  and as shown under a crystal bell in the house / National Trust Images / Susan Hayward

Author: Graciela Iglesias-Rogers

Although originally listed as a ‘toreador on a horse’ in the National Trust catalogue, this sculpture in terracotta (escultura en barro) by the Andalusian artist José Cubero Gabardón (1818-1877) dates back to the 1850s and it was likely meant to depict a muleteer, that is to say a person who transported goods using pack animals. The pistol on his lap was probably for protection: country roads in the 19th century were notoriously dangerous.


There are currently other three figures by the same artist in the NT Tyntesfield collection. It is believed that the founder of this country estate William Gibbs (1790 – 1875) bought at least two group pieces during a trip to Andalusia in 1853 and others were subsequently purchased by other members of the family through a dealer in London.


The esculturas en barro have been a speciality of Málaga (south of Spain) since early in the eighteenth century, but only gained wide notoriety after the English antiquarian Francis Carter (1741-1783) praised it in a book published at his return from a tour in 1772:


‘Malaga yields a clay, which is inimitable for the composition of images, as it not only receives and preserves every impression, but maintains itself without cracking in the oven, where they obtain an hardness and solidity equal to porcelain. The Spaniards colour and varnish them very highly. One of these image-makers is so ingenious, that he will take off the likeness of any person with great truth.’


The depiction of common people, particularly of a rough, at times dangerous nature such as the contrabandista (smuggler), the bailaor (dancer),  the campesino (peasant), the torero (bullfighter), the muletero (muleteer) and the bandolero a caballo (thief on a horse)  became a trademark since at the least the first decade of the nineteenth century if not earlier. Yet the practice was reinforced by a dramatic increase in demand during the Romantic period when the bourgeoisie, both within and outside Spain, developed a craze for a variety of exotic, risky traditionalism that was perfectly represented by these characters full of bright and expressive polychromy.


Cubero Gabardón originated from a family of sculpturers of Doña Mencía (Córdoba) who moved to Málaga in the 1820s. The artistic dynasty had been established by Francisco Cubero López (1779-1855) and consolidated by his children Miguel (1813-1840), Francisco (1816-1877) and particularly by the author of this piece José Cubero Gabardón (1818-1877) and his own sons José Cubero Gabardón II (1841-?) and Enrique Cubero Merino (1845-1901). Due to pressures of demand and in order to lower their prices, they produced in series, which at times reduced the final quality of their pieces, but not the sales, since their figures continued to be collected in London and Paris until well into the early twentieth century.


Perhaps due to the fragility of the material, their work is now hard to be found in public display. NT Tyntesfield seems to be the only institution exhibiting Cubero Gabardón  pieces in the UK and indeed outside Spain where a few examples can still be seen at the Museo del Romanticismo in Madrid  and the Museo Unicaja de Artes y Costumbres Populares in Málaga.


The exhibition continues>

Sources and Suggested Reading: Carter, Francis, A journey from Gibraltar to Malaga: with a view of that garrison and its environs a particular account of the towns in the Hoya of Malaga the antient and natural history of those cities, of the coast between them, and of the mountains of Ronda. Illustrated with the Roman inscriptions and coins of each municipal town, a geographical and classical chart, and thirteen plates engraved from original drawings, taken in the year 1772 (London: Printed by J. Nichols, for T. Cadell, 1780), p. 417; Romero Torres, José Luis, Los barros malagüeños del Museo de Unicaja de Artes Populares Mesón de la Victoria (Unicaja: Malaga, 1993); Cruz, Joaquín Manuel Alvarez, ‘El escultor Antonio de las Peñas y León ‘, Laboratorio de Arte, 18 (2005), 479-92; Dodds, Ben, ‘Representations of Bandits in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Spain’, Cultural and Social History, 9/2 (2012), 207-25.

How to cite: To cite from this page, please use any style (Chicago, Harvard, etc). Our preferred citation form is: Graciela Iglesias-Rogers, The risky appeal of the common people’, Exploring the Hispanic-Anglosphere, an online exhibition – The Hispanic-Anglosphere: transnational networks, global communities (late 18th to early 20th centuries), project funded by the AHRC and the University of Winchester in partnership with the National Trust, [, accessed – please add the date of your visit].

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