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Art and entrepreneurship in Andalucia

— July 2014

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The gardens of the villa where Jacqueline and Ian have launched their business

Setting up a business from scratch is something more and more people are doing, so how does an art historian go about it?

For an academic art historian, with no previous business experience, the idea of setting up an art history travel business in Spain was quite a challenge. Fortunately my husband, Ian, who had just finished a degree in art history at London University’s Birkbeck College, is an established entrepreneur with his own IT business. At an earlier stage in my career I had also taught Spanish language and literature, produced Spanish plays and co-written a book on Spanish song. Between us we appeared to have what should be the perfect combination of skills and expertise for the project though we did also have to deal with the challenge of working together for the first time!

Our first step was to find a suitable location and property, which we did, in the mountains of Andalucia, in the outstanding ‘pueblo blanco’ of Gaucin, with its international community of artists. The courses are based in the villa we found there, with spacious rooms, a large, sunny loggia, a salt-water swimming pool and many beautiful, quiet corners in the garden. We also made sure the rooms were very well-appointed, with large comfortable beds, wood-carved in the local style, and luxury cotton bed-linen. I persuaded Ian that luxury towels and toiletries were essential for the bathrooms!  Last but not least, we decorated and furnished the house in a partially Moorish style, very simple and exotic, and covered the walls with paintings and sculptures by some of the very talented local artists. Andalucia was once ruled by the Moors, invaders from north Africa who controlled various parts of Spain from the early 8th century to the late 15th century.

The next step was to get the formula for the courses right, with a good balance between well-researched lectures on the art of the region and its Moorish history and architecture, and guided visits to selected galleries and sites of interest throughout Andalucia. Developing the courses and the activities required a great deal of thought and attention to detail, as well as lots of local knowledge and the involvement of local people. We went out of our way to include some carefully selected experiences that visitors to Andalucia would not normally find. The result is driven by our love of and fascination with the varied and vibrant culture and history of the area, but tempered by an academic’s critical eye for the conscious creation of the romantic ‘myth’, the examination of external influences in the art and Moorish architecture, and the teaching of techniques for informed analysis of paintings and their provenances.

We also felt it would be important to give participants a varied experience of the region, such as visits to traditional bodegas for tastings, gourmet food and wine at the villa, walks in the surrounding countryside, an afternoon of painting and photography classes – as well as the time and space to relax and enjoy the stunningly beautiful environment of the house and garden, and of the village of Gaucin. To make this work, numbers are limited to a maximum of ten people per course. We also wanted to offer a very high-quality experience that is much better value for money than other educational holidays, some of which cost much more, yet involve much larger groups and incessant travelling between hotels, with little free time for relaxation. So the challenge was to provide a rich adventure, for the discerning and curious traveller who wants to get under the skin of the fascinating and varied culture that Andalucia offers.

Judging by the responses to the first and second courses in April and May  this year, we appear to have got the formula right – though that won’t stop us from constantly trying to improve on it. Amongst the things our first guests said they particularly enjoyed were the visits to local artists workshops, the intimate flamenco guitar performance on our loggia, and the wonderful food and wine. Some asked for even more lectures, so we’re considering adding optional extra lectures for the really keen.

Not everything went exactly to plan, of course. Our wine tasting at the stunningly located Descalzos Viejos bodega overran by more than an hour, because everyone was enjoying it too much to leave. We learned that in addition to being very well organized, we also had to be flexible and responsive to our guests’ needs! Nonetheless,  we greatly enjoyed sharing our knowledge of this amazing environment with our guests. To do something you really love hardly feels like work at all.

So what’s next? Well the next course is in October this year and we have decided to orientate it more towards painting. Learners and more experienced painters will be able to enjoy the villa and village and experience quality teaching. We will be lecturing about the local art and visiting galleries but will also have plenty of time to experiment with different techniques or simply gain confidence.

The food and wine will be wonderful as ever and we will have a paella master class and flamenco guitar evening as well as some wine tasting! October is a beautiful month in the village, just warm enough to catch the sun but also cool enough to walk or ride. Next year’s courses will also be exciting, as we will include a study of and visit to Cordoba, the site of a beautiful mosque that was one of the wonders of Mediaeval Spain.

See you there!


Jacqueline L. Cockburn
London and Andalucia
Art historian and entrepreneur

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