The Bowes Museum > Exhibitions > 2010 > Goya's Prison: The Year of Despair

Goya's Prison: The Year of Despair

23 March - 23 June 2019


Late in 1792 Goya became severely ill, and even though he eventually recovered he was left profoundly deaf for the rest of his days. During a period of recuperation he produced a set of small cabinet paintings on tin plate that were to define the rest of his career.The Bowes Museum’s Interior of a Prison is one of this series of works, and the Museum’s Director, Adrian Jenkins, explored the story behind the picture created during this monumental moment in Goya’s life.

By 1792 Goya, approaching 46, was tired of his routine painting cartoons for the Royal Tapestry Factory. Since 1775 he’d painted more than 60 full size colour motifs. The money was good, but they were only for Royal consumption; none of his wider audience got to see them.

With his career at a crossroads fate took a hand, and his destiny was decided by the debilitating illness which remains a mystery to this day. Whatever its cause it marked a turning point in defining the career of one of Western art’s greatest masters. Without any discussion with his Royal patrons, Goya left Madrid in 1792, heading to Andalusia. Ill with terrible noises in his head, severe dizziness, loss of balance and failing eyesight, his symptoms remained unidentified, although syphilis and meningitis were among the most popular theories.

Whatever the cause, the result left him markedly deaf, isolating him in an alien world and unable to communicate.

During Goya’s recuperation in Andalusia he convalesced with wine exporter and private collector, Sebastian Martinez; a fan of English painters such as Reynolds, whose work Goya was able to study. 

This shift away from the huge official tapestry commissions to smaller and more intimate works was instrumental in restoring his reputation.

In painting his series of cabinet pictures, Goya allowed himself to produce images that were of personal interest rather than the restrictions imposed by patrons. The subjects were diverse – six bullfighting scenes, a shipwreck, a raging inferno, a murderous stagecoach holdup, a travelling theatre, a lunatic asylum and the inside of a prison. But of the 12 images it was his portrayal of the inside of a prison that perhaps best conveyed Goya’s state of mind. 

This series of small works, all painted on tin, became the tinplate templates for much of his subsequent work. In these works Goya discovered his niche, whether his patrons liked it or not.

The Bowes Museum grounds are open!

Due to the government announcement on Thursday 17 December, that County Durham is to remain in COVID tier 3 restrictions, The Bowes Museum unfortunately will remain closed to all visitors. However, the grounds remain open to visitors from 10.00 - 4.00 daily, and we are currently hosting a woodland fairy trail, two spring trails and outdoor guided tours are available from 29 March 2021.

As we have already been shut for a number of weeks and there is much uncertainty around possible further restrictions, we have decided to use this period to undertake some work in Café Bowes, alongside performing some much-needed structural repairs to the building, notably to the windows. January and February are usually quieter times for the Museum, often due to severe weather, so we believe that this is the best time to carry out such works with the least amount of disruption to our visitors.

We have therefore decided to remain closed for a period of four weeks following any near-future tier 2 announcement from the government, as this will allow us time to deep clean the Museum prior to reopening our doors once again. We will, of course, keep you updated as the guidelines change.

Your ongoing support during these unprecedented times is hugely appreciated and we very much look forward to welcoming you back into the building as early as possible in 2021.

We hope to be able to offer a few COVID-safe outdoor events over the coming months, about which we shall make further announcements as soon as possible.