In the supper room at the Huntercombes’ ball, Nick finds himself at a table with Barbara Goring and Widmerpool, “in the corner underneath a picture of Murillo’s school in which peasant boys played with a calf.” (BM 73/67) The Murillo in question is Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), one of the most influential painters of the Spanish Baroque period.
Murillo is a favorite son of Seville, and the term “school of Seville” is virtually synonomous with “school of Murillo.” He is most often identified with the dreamy, ornate religiosity of his most famous paintings, such as this “Immaculate Conception of the Venerable Ones” of 1678, now in the Prado.
Somewhat less well-known than Murillo’s religious paintings are his many scenes contemporary peasants, largely done early in his career. These are unsentimental, non-judgemental windows into the life of the streets in 17th century Seville, and they are part of a social realist strain of Spanish painting famously found in the work of Velasquez and later in that of Goya. In the last half of the 19th century that social realism was rediscovered and repurposed by Eduard Manet and other French modernists, who rekindled widespread interest in the masters of the Spanish Baroque, Murillo included.
We can find no specific examples of a painting of boys playing with a calf by Murillo or a painter in the school of Murillo, but this reproduction of Murillo’s “Beggar Boys Eating Grapes and Melon” might give an idea of the unromantic character of these genre paintings. Perhaps this is another of Powell’s inventions of a fictitious work by an historical artist, of which several examples exist in Dance. In any case, we couldn’t help noticing that Powell’s phrase “boys playing with a calf” prefigures the imminent fate of that calf Widmerpool in the hands of Barbara Goring.