Every picture tells a story

MY workspace at home is dominated by a large and very peculiar canvas that I bought in 1975 from a Spanish painter well known in art circles in Sitges and nearby Barcelona.

Gonçal Sobré was a true eccentric, and he and I became great friends when I visited a hotel he owned in Sitges, the gorgeous Hotel Romàntic, built in 1897.

I’d always had a taste for wacky art and the moment I saw Gonçal’s painting I knew I had to have it. Since then, each time I glance at it memories come flooding back of the best and most surreal holiday I’ve ever had.

The first is the recollection of being woken up early one morning by Gonçal. He was standing outside my door in a state of high excitement. ‘Get dressed, grab your camera and come with me now,’ he trumpeted.

Hungover, and still half asleep I got into his beat-up old jalopy and demanded to know where he was taking me.

He replied ‘You’ll see when we get there.’ Half an hour later I found myself in a small village, the central square of which was dominated by a statue of General Franco. Attached to it were chains, and within minutes of us arriving, a tractor brought the statue crashing to the ground and an enormous cheer echoed round village.

It happened immediately after the news spread throughout the world that the vicious dictator had died of a heart attack, and similar statues were destroyed in the wake of his death.

The second abiding memory I have of that holiday was when a posse of pilgrims on their way back from Lourdes arrived at the hotel at around midnight, each carrying a six-litre bottle of ‘holy’ water.

These were not nice people. They rudely demanded that the water be taken up to their rooms by the concierge, a man in his late 80s who had to use the stairs to lug the bottles and luggage up to their rooms (the hotel did not have a lift). He wasn’t thanked. Nor did he receive a single tip.

The next morning Gonçal was at the reception desk when the pilgrims’ leader stormed up to him and insisted that bottled water be sent up to each of their rooms. The pious party had discovered that the tap water was salty, and they couldn’t make tea.

A fiery atheist, Gonçal thundered: ‘Use your bloody holy water to make tea, or go to my café and buy some.’ Ten minutes later the pilgrims stormed out of the hotel in a fury.

During the 45 years that I’ve owned the painting, it never once crossed my mind to have it valued. So this week I contacted Balclis, a leading auction house in Barcelona, and sent them a link to a website detailing Gonçal’s history.

To my astonishment I received a reply from Balclis within an hour of my sending them an email with a photo of the painting attached.

The good news was that they knew Sobré’s work. The bad news was that, were I to put it up for auction, I’d be lucky to get €4.00!

Ah well, the memories it conjures up are priceless.

Barry Duke’s opinions are his own and are not necessarily representative of those of the publishers, advertisers or sponsors.

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Barry Duke


    • Natalia Llarena

      28 March 2022 • 14:45

      Hi Barry!!! Liked your anecdotes about Gonçal in Sitges, thanks for sharing. Do happen to you know whether Gonçal is still alive? My Godfather Francesc Gironés, also an artist who lived in Poblenou-Barcelona, was friends with him.

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