Walter Starkie & the British Institute in Madrid

Spain's ambivalent political position during the war and its lack of support towards the Allied forces caused a strain in its relationship with Britain. However, music and art became a bridge between the two nations and were used as a political tool to encourage Spain to remain neutral rather than collaborating with the Nazis. A large part of this political influence stemmed from the establishment of the British Institute in Madrid and the tireless work of Walter Starkie.

Starkie began his career as a musician, studying violin at the Royal Irish Academy of Music with Archille Simonetti, a grand-pupil of the renowned violinist Paganini. With the outbreak of World War I, he joined the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association), which provided entertainment for British troops in Italy. While in Italy, Starkie made some important friendships. Stationed in Montebello Vicentino, he befriended five Hungarian prisoners of war, with whom he started building violins out of pieces of rough wood they collected. Later, in Northern Italy, he met Augusta Porchietti, an Italian Red Cross nurse who sang to soldiers in Genoa's hospital, and who later became his wife. These two encounters set the scene for his involvement with Roma and Sinti refugees and music, this time in Spain during World War II.

The British Institute in Madrid, or 'El British' as it was known, was set up in 1940 by the British Council with the aim of exerting an influence on Spain's political decisions through culture. In his opening speech as head of the institute in August 1940, Starkie discussed 'the attitude of the British council towards cultural relations', drawing parallels between Britain's Shakespeare and Spain's Cervantes to highlight the cultural similarities between the two countries. According to the report he sent back to London, the inaugural large-scale musical event attracted 'the whole musical public', and combined 'the principal composers, conductors, pianists, string instrumentalists, and the musical critics of all the papers. The hall of the institute where the recital was held was thronged and we also filled the gallery above. There were over 220 people present.'

Starkie's aim from the start was to highlight the great cultural achievements of Europe, with a particular emphasis on both England and Spain. To achieve this, he managed to attract some renowned names to his institute. In October 1940, the Czech pianist Rudolf Firkušný performed there on his way to the US, and Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo became a frequent visitor. In 1941 there were performances by famous flamenco singers Gracia de Triana and El Nino de Almaden and guitarist Manolo de Badajoz, as well as Gypsy dancing, a flamenco party and a recital of Spanish dances. By 1943 there were fortnightly 'tertulia' (artistic gatherings) such as chamber music concerts and gramophone recitals. All of these events provided a way for Spaniards and Britons to mix with one another in what was, on the surface, an apolitical way. In reality, the entertainment provided by music was far from apolitical as, by showing the compatibility of British and Spanish styles and by encouraging a mutual appreciation of each other's culture, the British Institute hoped that Spain could be reminded of her fondness for Britain and persuaded against collaborating with the Nazis.

It was not just live music that was used for this purpose. Musicology also played a role, with a series of lectures, including one by Starkie himself entitled 'Music, Magic and Minstrelsy – Some Experience of a Folklorist', in which he played violin melodies he had collected from his travels in Spain, Hungary, Romania, and Greece. Films also became another popular way of promoting British culture, through regular cinema evenings. A few key actors were chosen to be the focal points of these events, including Greer Garson, famous for her roles in Mrs Miniver and Goodbye Mr Chips, and Laurence Olivier, renowned for starring in Pride and Prejudice. The screenings were repeated in order to accommodate the large audiences keen to see them.

Whether the Spanish saw through the political agenda of the institute or not, the popularity of these events was quickly reflected in the membership numbers. Almost 500 students had enrolled by early December 1941, and just six months later this had increased to 762, with 408 additional adult members and nearly 100 primary school pupils. By the end of the war, student numbers had risen to 1,500. Starkie reported back to England that the institute was 'besieged by people who are interested in our work'. Starkie soon expanded the institute, forming links with the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (National Research Council) in Madrid and a Benedictine Monastery of Montserrat in the mountains of Catalonia, and opening a new branch in Barcelona.

The British Institute quickly became a vessel for purposes other than the arts. A Monthly Medical Bulletin was sent through from England, and a number of medics became subscribers. Brain specialist Dr H.W. B. Cairns travelled to Spain to present a paper on brain abscesses, and a film on blood transfusion was aired to 75 doctors and medical students. The church also became involved as a result of Starkie's event to mark the fourth centenary of the birth of Spain's Renaissance mystic St John of the Cross in 1942. Prominent ecclesiastical figures including the bishop of Madrid-alcalá, Leopoldo Eijo y Garay, and Basque Jesuit Father Nemesio Otaño, Director of the Real  Conservatorio de Música y Declamación (Royal Conservatory of Music and Drama), showed their allegiance to the institute. In 1942, Starkie also invited a number of university professors to speak there.

Not all of the events at the institute were so subtle in their political agendas. In May 1943, actor Leslie Howard gave a lecture on Hamlet, comparing the plot of murder, deception and madness to the actions of Hitler in an attempt to turn Spanish support away from the Nazis. Howard was famously anti-Nazi and allegedly involved in British Intelligence. On his return to London, Howard's plane was shot down by the German Luftwaffe. On the same plane returning from visiting the institute was Jewish activist Wilfred B. Israel, who had helped in the rescue of 10,000 Jewish children as part of the Kindertransport operation prior to the outbreak of war. The institute also became a support to refugees in Spain. During 1941, the American Red Cross provided flour and milk for 400 families in need, a process coordinated by Starkie's wife. Every subsequent Tuesday, around 50 Spanish and British women went to the institute to turn the sacks that had been used to transport the food into clothes for destitute children. Starkie himself helped British airmen who had been shot down over France to find an escape route across the Pyrenees, using his own flat at 24 Calle del Prado as a safe house.

Although separate from the British Embassy, and thus not an overtly political establishment, the institute still attracted political figures, including representatives from US, Dutch, Polish, Egyptian, Turkish and Czech embassies, and other leading public figures. On 8 January 1944, Starkie was invited to meet General Franco at his official residence of the Caudillo (leader). Franco expressed his interest in developing cultural relations abroad, and hoped to set up a Spanish institute in London to formalise the cultural exchange. Following this, in July 1944, Starkie was summoned to meet José Ibáñez Martín, the Spanish minister for education, to discuss the place of English in the national Bachillerato (Bachelaureate exams). The law at the time decreed that English should not be available for study, but Starkie convinced the minister to alter the law. On 12 August, a new ruling gave pupils the choice between English or German. Starkie reported back to England: 'I have gained a great victory for English in Spain and have destroyed one of the main advantages of the Germans here.'

With the end of the war, Starkie's position at the institute became uncertain. In 1946, an article in the Revista Nacional de Educación (National Education Magazine) eulogised Starkie's efforts, declaring that 'Spain deeply regrets the departure of Walter Starkie. So much so that negotiations have begun with a view to ensuring that the great professor might remain with us. Intellectual circles in Spain will view the continuing presence of their illustrious and hearty friend with genuine satisfaction.' In December 1946 Starkie's contract was renewed, but it was a time of immense political turmoil in Spain. In February 1946 France and Spain had closed frontiers, and in April, France, Great Britain and the United States formally rejected Franco's regime. By the time Starkie was re-established in his post, the United Nations had encouraged other member nations to withdraw their ambassadors and ministers. Nonetheless, Starkie did not lose heart at Spain's increasing isolation and programmed a vibrant array of events for the 1947 season. He did not retire from his role until 1954. Current member of the British Council Douglas Brown has perhaps summed up Starkie's efforts best, writing: 'Throughout the war, the underlying sympathies between Spaniards and Englishmen of all degrees were kept alive in the genial atmosphere of the British Institute.'

By Daisy Fancourt


Tony Norman, 'Professor Walter Starkie and the early years of the British Council in Spain' (British Council, 2010)