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Spoils of the Grand Tour: an exhibition devoted to a British cargo of Italian art captured by the Spanish reveals the essence of the Grand Tour.

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

17 May-22 August 2012

The Ashmolean, Oxford

Catalogue by Maria Dolores Sanchez-Jauregui and Scott Wilcox (eds.)

ISBN 9780300176056 (hardback), 45 [pounds sterling]

(Yale University Press)

The Ashmolean Museum's main temporary exhibition this summer explores that quintessentially 18th-century epoch of British cultural exchange: the Grand Tour. This remarkably ambitious show, accompanied by a sumptuous catalogue written by a cohort of specialists, presents for the first time to the English-speaking public the fruits of a decade of archival research and international collaboration between Spanish, British and American scholars. It does much more than merely reveal the artistic booty of copies and fakes acquired by a wealthy young male elite, packed off to Italy with their long-suffering tutors in order to apply some Continental polish to their education before returning home to run their landed estates. Instead, visitors are furnished with a multi-layered history of international transformation which reveals the impact of cultural and educational contact, all set within the shifting parameters of international trade, war, taste and fashion that produced the cults of antiquarianism and neo-Classicism.


At its heart the exhibition tells the story of the Westmorland, an armed merchant ship which in January 1779 was on course from Livorno, Tuscany, to London. Under the command of Captain Willis Machell and crewed by 60 men, the 300-ton vessel sailed this route annually. From England it had carried 'woollens, linens, iron, lead, hardware, leather, indigo & other merchandise'; now, on its return journey, it was laden with various goods including Parmesan cheese, anchovies, olive oil, oak galls, rolls of Genoa paper, black silk from Bologna, manna from Calabria and a 'black boy' (slave) from Bengal. But the principal cargo on this trip comprised 50 crates of Grand Tour artefacts--paintings, sculpture, watercolours, prints, books and ephemera--valued at around 100,000 [pounds sterling] (the equivalent of six million pounds today) and which had been consigned by British travellers, dealers, diplomats and artists. The return trip had been delayed from 1778 due to the prospect of war with France following the outbreak of the American War of Independence. When the Westmorland finally set off at the beginning of 1779, it did so with the Admiralty's permission to act as a privateer--i.e., to attack foreign ships. However, on 7 January 1779 it was pursued and captured as a 'prize of war' by better-armed French naval vessels, whereupon it was taken to Malaga and handed over to the Spanish authorities. After the commodities had been sold off, the crates of art were sold to King Carlos III, who retained some of the principal items for himself before donating the bulk of the residue to the Real Academia de Bellas Arts de San Fernando, Madrid. Some paintinss and sculptures went into the Royal collection, while others were later transferred to museums and galleries in Madrid such as the Prado. The most valuable painting, Anton Raphael Mengs' The Liberation of Andromeda by Perseus (1773-78) had already been sold by the French authorities to Catherine the Great, and today it remains in the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.


The fate of the Westmorland and its Grand Tour cargo--as well as the identities of the original owners of the crates--remained forgotten until the end of the 1990s, when a team of determined Spanish scholars, led by Professor Jose Maria Luzon Nogue and Dr Maria Dolores Sanchez-Jauregui, tracked down and analysed ship manifests in Spanish, Italian, French and British archives to reveal the provenance of those works of art and books that wound up in the Real Academia. An early exhibition was held in Spain in 2002, but research continued at an intensive level with the support of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. The Ashmolean exhibition travels in autumn to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, which has put considerable resources into producing both the show and the catalogue.

The present exhibition opens by revealing the purpose and the mechanics of the Grand Tour, using maps, books, souvenirs and guidebooks from the Westmorland to illuminate the time capsules of the classical world that tourists and their tutors journeyed through. The educational aspirations and collecting interests of the British ruling elite are revealed through a small number of travellers including Francis Basset, 1st Baron de Dunstanville and Basset, the heir to a tin-mining fortune in Cornwall. He is shown portrayed by Pompeo Batoni (1708-87) in a typical Grand Tour portrait, wearing a red coat and standing nonchalantly in a Roman landscape scattered with classical sculptures (Fig. 4). Among his artistic commissions are a group of six fine watercolours of the Alban Hills, all in superlatively fresh condition, including the accomplished view of Lake Albano from Palazzolo (Fig. 3).



Other collectors highlighted are Lord Duncannon and Lord Lewisham, who were kept on fairly tight financial reins by their respective fathers, themselves having both travelled to Italy as young men. A more lavish spender was William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and a younger brother of King George III, who made major purchases of sculptures that were mainly copies of famous classical antiquities such as the Medici Venus (Fig. 1). By contrast, the more modest Scottish landowner Sir John Henderson of Fordell was interested mainly in learning French and Italian and in acquiring musical scores. His crate also contained a sensitive, small portrait by an unknown artist which may well represent Henderson himself--certainly he made strenuous, though eventually unsuccessful, efforts to have it returned from Spain.

This intensely thought-provoking exhibition and catalogue open a new door for advancing our understanding of the Grand Tour. Even though most of the objects on show are neither masterpieces of Italian painting nor original classical sculptures, as copies and interpretations of celebrated masterpieces they reveal how deeply the culture and history of Italy and the Roman Empire were being absorbed by the travelling British elite, as well as by artists and architects who were busy creating a new Rome at home: a burgeoning British Empire based on global trade and colonial absorption. And in a neatly ironic twist, we have to thank Spanish historians, researching in Spanish collections, for the detailed physical and archival recovery of this historic British cargo.

Stephen Lloyd is co-editor of Henry Raeburn: Context, Reception and Reputation, forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press.
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Author:Lloyd, Stephen
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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