The Suppliants: Expulsion of the Gypsies from Spain, by Edwin Long. 1872. Oil on canvas, H 182.8 x W 286.9 cm. Picture Gallery at Royal Holloway, University of London. Accession number: THC0038. Reproduced by kind permission of the Picture Gallery. Image capture and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Commentary by Robert Fraser

In The Suppliants: Expulsion of the Gypsies from Spain (1872) a cardinal and a high-ranking official, seemingly a King, are in energetic conversation. They are descending a carpeted flight of church steps, at the foot of which huddle a gaggle of what look like Romany gypsies with gestures of ramshackle supplication. Behind them runs a cloister, through the arches of which we can he observe a great lady sweeping past, attended by her servants. As she goes, she glances down at the confrontation outside. The position of the figures is sculptural and yet manages to suggest vigorous movement on all sides: the downward momentum of the monarch and priest, the jostling of the gypsies, the stately procession through the cloister. What does history tell us? The church is Santa Annunciata in Valladolid, the king is Philip III of Spain (1578-1621), and the period one of ethnic and religious purge. In 1609, at the urging of the Inquisition, Philip had issued a decree banishing the Moriscos – former Muslims who had converted to Christianity – from his Kingdom (Ferdinand and Isabella had already expelled the Jews). Ten years later he was urged by one Cardinal Gonzales to do the same to the long-standing, and largely despised, Romany community, and would have done so, had it not been for the intercession of his Queen, Margaret of Austria. Long had studied these facts in the writings of Pachero, Secretary to the Inquisition, held in the archives of Sarmancas (Long to Carey, September 14, 1887, Chapel 107). To get the figures right, he had studied portraits of the key figures in the Prado. The result, though, is very far from being an academic painting. What he has so vividly brought to life is a delicate balance between different species of power: the ecclesiastical bullying of the Church, the sovereign discretion of the king, the moral plea of the suppliants, and the intervention of the consort. To my mind, it was the last of these that had proved the deciding factor. Once again, follow the eyes. The Queen is looking downwards towards the gypsy hoard. What does her glance convey: contempt, pity, condescending curiosity? Maybe all of these, but there is something else too. Examine the postures of the principal protagonists: the awkward and embarrassed face-to-face of the king and cardinal, the upright and stuffy bearing of Queen Margaret, shut off by the cloister, hemmed in by protocol and servants. By contrast, the gypsies are spontaneous and creative. Look at the girl in the foreground: she has cast her tambourine aside to join in the general supplication, but she will soon pick it up and start playing again. In my interpretation of the painting the governing motive is envy: not of the powerless for the powerful, but the other way round.

Related Material


Chapel, Jeannie. Victorian Taste: The complete catalogue of paintings at the Royal Holloway College. London: A. Zwemmer for Royal Holloway, 1982.

Created 10 June 2020