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Lot 800 (A Middle Eastern Journey | Live Online, 2nd December 2020)

Spain, mid to late 19th century 

Spain, mid to late 19th century

Of rectangular shape, carved and polychrome-painted, the relief replicating a Moorish architectural facade inspired by the Nasrid fortress and palace complex of the Alhambra in Granada, Andalusia, the architecture characterised by the typical polylobed and ogival arches, dense foliate arabesque patterns, rosette roundels, star motifs, geometric designs and repeated calligraphic bands with the Nasrid motto Wa La Ghaliba Illa-llah (there is no victory except God), set within a black wooden frame, the plaster relief 58cm x 37cm, 70cm x 49.5cm including the frame.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a collection of four panels very similar to ours in terms of decoration, motifs and size, which were donated to the museum in 1886 by Richard M. Hunt, and attributed to the work of the Spanish ceramicist Rafael Contreras (inv. nos. 86.15.1-4).

Contreras was appointed by Queen Isabella II in 1847 as Head Restorer (adornista) of the Alhambra. He carried out a major restoration to the Nasrid palatial complex between 1847 and 1889. His approach as a restorer only focused on the Alhambra’s wall surface, substituting original decorations with new plaster casts made in his workshop, using the re-discovered plaster technique of clay stamping (apretón de barro). Due to the substantial loss of the original plaster decoration, Contreras and his team deliberately decided to recreate all of the decorations on the walls, filling in any blank spaces, leading inevitably to the transformation of the original Nasrid complex into a new Alhambra, much more "Moorish" and Oriental in taste to meet the foreign visitors' expectations of the perfect exotic and picturesque stopover in their Romantic journey.

After realising the economic potential of creating souvenir plaster models to sell to visitors and with the Queen's enthusiastic approval and support, Contreras and his team started producing reduced scale models, usually 1:12, of the most important Islamic buildings in Spain. At first sight, his models appear to be faithful reproductions of specific walls or facades in the palace. However, the models were clearly based on and mirroring Contreras' restored panels, with wall decorations in an unblemished state to create a more complete vision of the palace. Thus, these architectural models are not exact copies of the original monuments, but rather the ideal archetype of the Orientalist Alhambra, so popular among European visitors and a romanticised attempt to boast Spain's glorious past (Asun González Pérez (2017), Reconstructing the Alhambra: Rafael Contreras
and Architectural Models of the Alhambra in the Nineteenth Century, Art in Translation, 9:1, 29-49, DOI: 10.1080/17561310.2017.1297041,

A number of similar panels have successfully been sold at auction through the years. For further reference, please see Christie's South Kensington 24 April 2012, lot 102; and 2 October 2012, lot 56; see also Sotheby's Paris, Pierre Berge: from One Home to Another, 30 - 31 October 2018, lot 772.

the plaster relief 58cm x 37cm, 70cm x 49.5cm including the frame

£2,000 - £3,000

Buyer's premium: 25.00% plus VAT

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