The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, an Episode of the Grand Tour

The Ashmolean’s new show recreates the artistic journey of an 18th-century Grand Tour. Daniel Carey enjoys the ride

May 17, 2012

Arch of Titus © Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Museo

The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, an Episode of the Grand Tour

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until August

  • The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, an Episode of the Grand Tour
  • Edited by Maria Dolores Sanchez-Jauregui Alpanes and Scott Wilcox
  • Yale University Press, 400pp, £45.00
  • ISBN 9780300176056
  • Published 31 May 2012

As spring gives way to summer and thoughts turn to foreign holidays, what better subject for an exhibition than the Grand Tour - the expedition across the Continent, canonised in the 18th century, that led gentlemen (and sometimes women) through France and the Alps to Italy?

The Ashmolean Museum’s exhibition The English Prize, curated by Catherine Whistler, retells the story of these journeys from an unusual perspective: the capture in 1779 of a British ship, the Westmorland, returning from Livorno with dozens of crates belonging to British visitors, which contained the fruits of their collecting while on tour. Rather than reaching its appointed destination of London, the Westmorland was taken in the Mediterranean by two French vessels, authorised to seize such booty during the American War of Independence, and its contents sold on in Spain. Nearly 800 items, including paintings, prints and books, made their way into Spanish galleries, starting with the Real Academia, as the purchase of King Carlos III.

Only through painstaking detective work by Spanish scholars that began in the 1990s was the provenance of these items retraced and the identity of the owners of the goods on board gradually revealed. Thus “HRHDG” emerged as King George III’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester, and the “P.Y.” marked by a Spanish librarian in captured books identified as shorthand for Presa Ynglesa, the English Prize. Part of the interest of this show lies in the drama of the work that was done to recover this past, which offers a unique glimpse into the cumulative buying habits of a set of prominent visitors to the Continent.

Based on careful inventories made at the time, the exhibition focuses on the collecting and commodities that inspired four tourists in particular: Francis Basset, whose considerable wealth derived from Cornish mining interests, George Legge (Viscount Lewisham), Frederick Ponsonby (Viscount Duncannon) and a Scottish traveller of means, John Henderson. Basset and Legge commissioned portraits from Pompeo Batoni, then the leading portraitist in Rome, who painted about 200 British visitors alone over the course of his long career. The easy grace of Basset’s pose, leaning on a marble antiquity with Castel Sant’Angelo and St Peter’s in the background, as Nolli’s map of Rome curls in his left hand, suggests the mood of travellers untroubled by religious difference and confident that the cultural prestige of the Eternal City was readily available to them.

All the items on display originated in crates consigned to the Westmorland: from busts to Vesuvian lava; from books for leisure (including Tristram Shandy) and for personal libraries (whether by Dante or Torquato Tasso) to tabletops inlaid with exquisite samples of ancient marble. Basset alone purchased 14 volumes of Piranesi etchings, including the famous Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), as well as his Vedute di Roma (Views of the City). This patronage was enough to lead Piranesi to dedicate a plate of a tripod engraving to Basset, as a Cavaliere Inglese(“English knight”) and Amatore delle belle Arti (“Lover of the fine arts”).

The maps and guidebooks that enabled travellers to plan their trips are here, together with a variety of watercolours of Italian vistas, among them works by the English artist John Robert Cozens, as fresh as the day they were drawn. Perishable goods listed in inventories offer a hint of the taste sensations that must have been lamented when they were lost, from barrels of anchovies to 32 wheels of Parmesan cheese (in a masterstroke, the Ashmolean has recruited the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano as a sponsor).

There have been previous exhibitions on the Grand Tour, and the impact of these expeditions on British taste and collecting habits is well known. A memorable exhibition at the Tate in 1997 provided ample evidence of this phenomenon across the 18th century. However, the Ashmolean exhibition gives us something different: a sense of a shared activity at a specific moment in time in which the repetition of taste is as important as the expression of individual interests. The narrative attached to the objects conveys their value in a particularly immediate way, not only in the Spanish king’s purchase of the items, but in attempts by forlorn owners to recover them via diplomatic lobbying or, failing that, through insurance agents back in Italy. Perhaps the most touching, if tantalising, instance of a sentimental relationship to the goods on board is Henderson’s appeal for the return of a portrait by an unknown artist of an unknown sitter, a handsome young man in finely painted three-quarter profile, about whom we can only guess. Henderson said it had no value beyond personal worth, calling it “a Portrait he joys which he wishes much to have”.

The exhibition’s contents also mirror the peregrination of the travellers themselves, taking on a life history through their transportation in 90 crates from Livorno to Malaga and Madrid. In the case of Anton Raphael Mengs’ painting The Liberation of Andromeda by Perseus, exhibited to acclaim in Rome, the itinerary was more complicated still. It was commissioned by Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, who awaited the work for display in his London home or Welsh estate; it was then conveyed to Paris after its capture, and from there made its way into the collection of Catherine the Great. (The pattern has been repeated, with the portrait recently on loan in Spain but unable to make it to the Ashmolean until after the exhibition opens since it must first return to Russia for an export licence to the UK.)

One of the strengths of the exhibition is how it conveys the heavily mediated nature of the Grand Tour experience. These encounters were filtered through expectations formed in reading travel guides and accounts of journeys, by maps, by the classical education that young gentlemen received at institutions such as Eton College and the University of Oxford, and above all by agents who understood British taste and what such people wanted and needed to acquire. The Roman market was controlled for decades by Thomas Jenkins and James Byres, who served as guides, dealers, bankers and intermediaries between visitors, artists and even the Pope. (Jenkins’ letter to Legge’s father, the Earl of Dartmouth, is on display, detailing arrangements for Legge’s numerous purchases.)

The show is unafraid to acknowledge that travellers’ paramount concern was not the originality of the objects they acquired. In this period, to have “taste” was to regulate oneself according to a standard, a standard set in Italy and governed by Neo-Classical convention. They had an eye for what was good, but their purchases were not intended to break new ground. Thus a Guido Reni copy had more value than an original by a less esteemed contemporary artist, and copies of antique busts (such as the Duke of Gloucester’s purchase of a head of the Medici Venus) were welcome additions to any collection. Some of the prints were “bespoke” productions, but many were purchased from studios that evidently specialised in scenes that constituted “souvenirs” of a journey, the equivalent of posters or catalogues of exhibitions we might now carry home in our luggage.

One might wish for more information on the conditions of exporting paintings and antiquities in the period, since that also had an impact on collecting (and made copies a more viable option). The original crates contained 136 pieces of sheet music, but it has been possible to identify only two. Nor can we gauge fully the history of the practices that informed the journeys made by the featured protagonists (whose fathers made the Tour before them in the case of Legge, Ponsonby and Henderson). But as a sun-drenched invitation to reimagine the Grand Tour, this exhibition would be difficult to beat.

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