Introduction: Nicola Baird is PhD candidate in the School of Arts and Creative Industries at London South Bank University and a member of the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image (CSNI). Hers is a collaborative project between London South Bank University’s Borough Road Gallery and the Ben Uri Gallery: Art, Identity, Migration.
A Casa with a View: Notes on a Bomberg Inspired ‘Pilgrimage’ to Ronda, August 2017-
I painted this picture from a mountain ledge three miles from Ronda across the valley, which point is the most perfect for a view of the city on its great rock. Leaving my house above, I would sometimes wind my way down the old Moorish path of the edge of the ravine and cross the cultivated valley, climbing up again through the olive groves on the slopes of the opposite ledge, on the afternoons of brilliant Andalucian spring days. Then I would forget everything but the ancient city on its glowing rock until the chill of the mountain shadow touched me- the sun had gone- Ronda was in afterglow and I was packing up to go home. This time, too dangerous to climb down the rocky sharp in the dark, I would prefer to share the roadway home with the peasants and their goats; all of us making for the warmth of the brazier fires of Ronda.
- David Bomberg
I arrived in Ronda, in the Spanish province of Malaga, on the evening of what had been a brilliant Andalusian summer day. Perched on an inland plateau riven by the 100 metre fissure of the El Tajo gorge, Ronda is Malaga province’s most spectacular city. Divided in two by the Guadalevin River it owes its name (‘surrounded’ by mountains), to the encircling Serrania de Ronda. Ronda was a favourite with the Romantics of the late 19th century and has attracted an array of international artists and writers including David Wilkie, Alexandre Dumas, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles and David Bomberg. Bomberg came to Ronda via Cuenca with his wife Lilian in May 1934 and stayed until civic unrest forced them to leave Spain in November of the following year. The site of the Bombergs’ first home in Ronda is now marked with a blue plaque which was presented in 2004 to coincide with an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Museo Joaquin Peinado. Bomberg was not to return to Ronda until 1954 when he tried, and failed, to set up a school of painting at Villa Paz, the house he rented next to the medieval Palacio de Mondragon. Advertisements were printed and letters sent out to many of his former students but the owner of the house evicted them before even the first class had taken place. Though Bomberg gave up on the idea of the school he found some consolation in being consequently offered a ruinous property to rent on a pine-lined ridge commanding views in one direction of the massive Puente Nuevo and in the other of the picturesque Serrania de Ronda. La Casa de la Virgen de la Cabeza, is, it transpires, still owned by the same prominent Ronda family today. The only other house on the ridge was taken by former pupils Miles and Susanna Richmond. The plaque, the Villa Paz (as well as the Church of La Paz) and La Casa de la Virgen de la Cabeza were therefore key places to visit along with sites from which it is known Bomberg painted/drew, such as the Plaza de toros de Ronda, Spain’s oldest bullring, the Church of Santa Maria la Mayor in the Plaza Duqesa de Parcent, the Arab baths, which can be found below the city and date back to the 13th and 14th centuries and the roof of a former hospital in the new town. As the old hospital was not far from where I was staying, this was my first port of call. Obviously I was not able to get up onto the roof of the building but I was able to appreciate its height and the view from the end of the road across the old city. Next I visited the Plaza de toros, built in 1784 in the neoclassical style by the architect Jose Martin de Aldehuela, who also designed the mighty Puente Nuevo, linking the old and the new parts of the city. It is thought that Bomberg’s last work, completed one moonlit night in the company of Miles Richmond, was of the bullring’s main gate near eclipsed by the casting of a sinister black shadow. Then it was on to the Church of Santa Maria la Mayor originally built in the 14th century as a mosque and transformed into a cathedral in the years following the Christian conquest of 1485. Sadly it was demolished in an earthquake in 1580 and the church which stands in its place today is an incomplete replacement, though still very impressive inside and out. The plaque and the Villa Paz, also in the old town and being fairly close together, were next on my list. I was unable to gain entry to the Villa Paz, now a bar, when I visited but walked right up to the main door and photographed through a side gate and from the restaurant next door I was able to photograph the Villa’s front (gorge) facing façade and small garden/outside space. It was amazing to be there and I was able to really get a sense of the artist’s presence. Emerging back onto the main road in the old town I carried on down the hill towards the Arab baths which were beautifully in-tact and well maintained. From there I was able to appreciate an alternative view of Ronda one which Bomberg would have witnessed. The following day I met up with Miles and Susanna Richmond’s daughter Georgina who grew up in Ronda (and was three when Bomberg died) and for the last fourteen years has been living permanently in the beautifully bohemian feeling house her parents bought in 1960s just outside the city. We had lunch together with her husband David, who is also a painter, before driving round to La Casa de la Virgen de la Cabeza, Bomberg’s last home in Ronda and where he spent the last three years of his life. Experiencing the almost comically obstinate isolation of this slightly ramshackle, dwarfish looking house hunched beneath a large and imposing tree was a peculiarly evocative moment in which I felt I sensed something of the artist’s presence in the air. Although we were unable to enter the house we were able to view it from the top of a short driveway and to appreciate the geological drama of the landscape as well as the spectacular views of the Puente Nuevo, towering 120 metres above the canyon floor, and the El Tajo gorge which its unique position affords. Georgina told me that Bomberg and Miles would have painted at various points along the entirety of the ridge, something which would now be impossible as the owner of valley land abutting has illegally erected a metal fence preventing right of way. The fence, which jars with the timelessness of the landscape and tampers with the ridge’s at once lost and liberated quality is, according to Georgina, a sign, amongst others, that things in Ronda are changing, planning permission has been granted for a large luxury hotel in the valley and a developer has bought the 1920s folly on the rocky road between the ridge and Ronda proper from which Bomberg and Miles would also have painted. This just left the views of the Puente Nuevo which could only be authentically experienced by walking down into the gorge from steps in the corner of the Plaza Auxiladora. Later that evening, as the temperature cooled slightly, we began walking, stopping at a viewpoint, the remains of an old house, to take pictures, before taking a different path along and underneath the bridge in order to appreciate its awe-inspiring height and mass. The next day was spent walking around both the old and the new parts of the city, revisiting previous sites and admiring the incredible views of the gorge from the Puente Nuevo as well as climbing down into it from the other side via the Moorish La Minathe so-called Water Mine (accessed from the gardens of the Casa del Ray Moro). The following morning I took a bus from Ronda to Malaga where I spent my last day and night. Serendipitously there was a temporary ‘School of London’ exhibition on at the Picasso Museum which included four paintings by Bomberg, all from the Tate’s collection, but which I had never seen in the flesh as so few example of his work are ever on display at any one time. Perhaps predictably I came away both from the Picasso Museum and from Spain feeling curiously and in a perhaps predictably romantic way somehow better able to understand and to appreciate the nature of Bomberg’s experiments/achievements in Ronda, the epic transition in each case from quest to conquest, or otherwise, as well as the courage, determination and mental fortification involved in continuing to paint, to draw, to prove with each taking up of the brush his own sense of self-worth. And now when I look at the work he did in Ronda, having experienced the majesty and the drama of those vistas for myself, I am overwhelmed by a misty-eyed mirage of Bomberg the conquerer, Bomberg the great and am unable to prevent ringing in my ears the artist’s oft-quoted incantation: ‘seek the spirit in the mass’.
This trip was made possible by Queenswood School’s Ruth Moon Award for which I am very grateful.