Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 18, 2013
María Dolores Sanchez-Jáuregui and Scott Wilcox, eds. The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, An Episode of the Grand Tour Exh. cat. New Haven and Madrid: Yale University Press, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and Real Academia de Belles Artes de San Fernando, 2012. 392 pp.; 350 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300176056)
Exhibition schedule: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, May 17–August 27, 2012; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, October 4, 2012–January 13, 2013
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Nicholas Pocock. The Ranger, Private Ship of War, with her Prizes (1780). Pen and black ink over graphite with gray wash on moderately thick, moderately textured, cream laid paper mounted on thick, slightly textured cream wove paper. Mount: 18 1/8 x 23 3/4 inches; sheet: 15 x 21 inches. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Shipwrecks have long attracted salvagers, archaeologists, and historians, offering precious but fragmentary evidence of broader cultural, political, and economic networks. The Westmoreland or Westmorland (so spelled in deference to early Spanish orthography and established scholarship), a British merchant ship that sailed from Livorno for England during the War of American Independence in 1778, was not sunk but captured by French frigates and escorted to Málaga, where her passengers were taken prisoner and her cargo—including books, prints, drawings, pictures, sculptures, music, fans, lava samples, and Parmesan cheeses consigned by British travelers—was confiscated as spoils of war. The story would have ended there had not King Carlos III purchased much of the booty for the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando to fuel Spain’s own burgeoning interest in Italianate art and culture.

Like a shipwreck, only sharper, the capture of the Westmorland shines a spotlight on the Grand Tour’s material and commercial dimensions, supplementing recent studies including Viccy Coltman’s Fabricating the Antique: Neoclassicism in Britain, 1760–1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006; reviewed by this author in Bryn Mawr Classical Review), Ilaria Bignamini and Clare Hornsby’s Digging and Dealing in Eighteenth-Century Rome (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), and Antonio Pinelli’s Souvenir: l’industria dell’antico e il grand tour a Roma (Rome: Laterza, 2010). What this episode adds is a new specificity, a privileged glimpse inside a few of the crates in which fragments of Italy were transported home to conjure—or so it was hoped—sites and settings most travelers would never revisit. More than aides-mémoire, the artifacts on board were thus lieux de mémoire invested with intense, if elusive, meanings for their owners. But they were also, as the recent exhibitions in Oxford and New Haven made clear, the products of a growing travel industry, reminders that one milord’s keepsake was an Italian artist’s or scholar’s meal ticket.

That the Westmorland’s contents could be exhibited at all reflects years of sleuthing by a team of Spanish and international researchers in archives across Europe. As José M. Luzón Nogué and María Dolores Sanchez-Jáuregui explain in the accompanying catalogue, the project was sparked by a set of cinerary urns of dubious antiquity with a supposed provenance to a captured British ship. The subsequent discovery of both period inventories and books inscribed “P.Y.” for presa ynglesa (English prize) initiated a decade-long search to identify and locate the remaining cargo. Success has varied by category, and while nearly all the prints and maps have been traced, just over half the paintings and sculptures, a fraction of the sheet music, and none of the artificial flowers have been identified. A central challenge has been to match the crates’ cryptic markings with specific consigners, some of whom remain unknown. Research continues, and it is hoped that the database detailing all of the Westmorland’s 778 “cultural items” will soon be available to scholars at large.

How to translate a ship’s manifest into an exhibition? Although the 3,837 barrels of anchovies were not shown, their absence inevitably inflated the importance of artworks in the cargo as a whole. Even here, not all could be brought: disputes with Russia kept Anton Raphael Mengs’s Liberation of Andromeda by Perseus, the Westmorland’s most important treasure, from New Haven, where it was represented by a digital projection. Other objects could not be moved, including a sculptured marble chimneypiece now at the Escorial and another consigned by the Duke of Gloucester, younger brother of George III, of which only the component statue groups by Carlo Albacini remained at San Fernando. Still other artifacts remain untraced, including a pair of small, antique priapic fauns belonging to Charles Townley, which apparently underwent gender-reassignment surgery before disappearing into the Spanish royal collections.

The bigger challenge was arranging the materials that were available. One approach, used effectively in the Tate exhibition Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century (shown in London and Rome in 1996–97 and reviewed by this author in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians [56, no. 4 (December 1997): 499–502]), would have been to follow the travelers’ path, devoting sections to sights seen, experiences had, and shops visited. Although helpful for newcomers, such a diachronic tack would have diluted the Westmorland’s freeze-frame singularity. An alternate approach (facilitated by the database) might have sliced this accidental archive by object type, allowing the resulting duplications—two copies of Sir William Hamilton’s lavishly illustrated treatise on the Campi Phlegraei (1776), four copies of Gavin Hamilton’s Schola Italica Picturae (1773), or fifteen impressions of Giovanni Volpato’s 1778 engraving of Raphael’s School of Athens for six different owners—to visualize the Tour’s increasingly conventionalized, if not conformist, nature.

As it was, the curators embraced the biographical approach suggested by the inventories (which themselves proceeded by crate) and scholarly tools such as John Ingamells’s A Dictionary of British and Irish Travelers in Italy, 1701–1800 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). After introducing the ship and its fate via letters, inventories, books, portraits, and a scale model, the display proceeded by consignor with each identified by a banner, biography, and portrait where available. This approach had the advantage of personalizing a complex cultural phenomenon and positioning the exhibition as interlocking human narratives. It also highlighted each consignor’s interests and predilections. The Duke of Gloucester, for instance, favored modern sculpture in an antique vein, while the painter Allen Ramsay preferred landscapes. Francis Bassett, heir to a large estate in Cornwall, came nearest to a complete kit: a portrait by Pompeo Batoni, a terracotta bust by Christopher Hewetson (likely for translation into marble), fourteen volumes of Piranesi prints, views of the Alban Hills by John Robert Cozens (perhaps for display in the library at Tehidy Park), copies of Pompeiian wall paintings on silk, gouache copies after Guido Reni and the Aldobrandini Wedding, annotated editions of Winckelmann, assorted books and views, and plans for a family chapel by a resident English architect.

The biographical approach underscored the personal and dynastic dimensions behind several would-be souvenirs: Viscount Duncannon’s fan leaves (cats. 75–78) must have been gifts for his future bride, while Viscount Lewisham’s portrait by Batoni (cat. 110), had it reached England, would have joined that artist’s portrait of his father painted twenty-five years earlier. John Henderson of Fordell, whose tour was not previously known, apparently traveled in part to contest paternity claims sparked by his father’s stay in Naples. His own consignments, intriguingly, included both Crébillon fils’s libertine novel Les égarements du coeur et de l’ésprit (1765), the story of a young aristocrat’s amorous initiation, and a small but smoldering male portrait (cat. 101) he tried in vain to ransom and in which it is hard not to read some affair of the heart. Other objects suggested not individual expression but suppression, particularly the faithful copies after Raphael, Titian, Reni, and Guercino (cats. 111, 112, 129, 137), and antique marble busts (cats. 99, 100). These works’ quality yet anonymity highlighted the tyranny of the replica market: what would their now forgotten makers have produced if given more creative scope? That line was consciously blurred in the exhibition’s final section, where antique and pseudo-antique busts, urns, and candelabra were assembled on a plinth as if in an antiquary’s shop. Here the game became to detect the authentic from the forged—one most Grand Tourists, judging from these specimens, lost.

The sumptuous catalogue, supported by the David T. Langrock Foundation, is a souvenir folio in its own right. Thirteen thematic essays anchor the ship and its cargo in history, followed by full object entries organized by crate, and transcriptions, as well as English translations, of inventories taken at Málaga and Madrid in 1783 and 1784. After an overview of the project by Luzón Nogué and Sanchez-Jáuregui, the latter and Scott Wilcox (“The Westmorland: Crates, Contents, and Owners”) detail the cargo’s fate and disappointed consignors, while Eleanor Hughes (“Trade and Transport: The Westmorland in Context”) studies the vessel, its captain, and the hazards of maritime shipping. In an erudite essay (“Whose Grand Tour?”), John Brewer argues for replacing a milord-centered view of foreign travel in favor of a broader “tourist industry” involving tutors, artists, scholars, dealers, kings, and popes, all of whom shaped and structured the course of elite travel. Sanchez-Jáuregui (“Educating the Traveler: The Tutors”), in turn, focuses on the neglected figure of the governor or “bear-leader” who directed his charge’s studies, kept his purse, and often influenced his purchases. This section’s fullest essay, and in a sense the core of the volume, is Jonathan Yarker and Clare Hornsby’s “Buying Art in Rome in the 1770s,” which scrutinizes the relations between the travelers and the dealers and middlemen who supplied them. Yarker and Hornsby stress that the Grand Tour was, above all, a marketplace that connected savvy producers with aesthetically malleable consumers. If the Westmorland’s cargo was less a trove of masterpieces than a cross-section of commercial products, this reflected both the state of the art market and the success of its most aggressive (self-)promoters.

The remaining seven essays isolate selected contents, roughly following contemporary hierarchies of media. Steffi Roettgen (“Anton Raphael Mengs’s The Liberation of Andromeda by Perseus: A European Odyssey from Rome to St. Petersburg”) charts the frenzied contest for the ship’s most valuable artwork, painted for Sir Watkin Williams Wynn but “abducted” by Empress Catherine the Great, perhaps abetted by Mengs himself. Alison Yarrington (“Christopher Hewetson: Sculpture, Commerce, and Sociability in Rome”) examines three crates of portrait busts and molds in plaster and terra cotta against the background of Rome’s competitive art market, while Kim Sloan (“‘Surpassing the Others in Prospect and Situation’: Six Watercolors by John Robert Cozens”) stresses the importance of commissions like Bassett’s for a young artist’s development.

Frank Salmon (“The Westmorland and Architecture”) examines the specialized interest manifested by Lord Duncannon, whose consignments included both measured drawings of ancient buildings—testaments to a thriving copy industry—and new all’antica ceiling designs by Vincenzo Brenna that recall his plates for Ludovico Mirri’s edition of the Baths of Titus, two copies of which were on board. John Wilton Ely (“Piranesi and the Tourists”) underscores the Venetian’s continuing importance for the traveler’s vision of Rome, represented on board by forty bound volumes and loose plates, including one dedicated to Basset. Sanchez-Jáuregui studies “Books on the Westmorland,” many of which retained their colorful Dutch printed paper bindings. Of the 378 titles, 294 (including dictionaries, guidebooks, handbooks on art and antiquities, treatises on geography, history, politics, manners and customs, literature, theater, music, and pleasure reading) qualify as travel aides, while 84 titles of bound prints (by Piranesi, Mirri, Giuseppe Vasi, and others) suggest travelers’ voracious appetite for illustrated folios and Italian publishers’ readiness to satisfy it. Luzón Nogué (“A Crate of Saint’s Relics”), finally, unpacks the subterfuge behind the ship’s most secret souvenir, donated by Pope Clement XIV to Henry Arundell for the new chapel at Wardour Castle. After two years’ delay in Livorno devising a safe shipment plan, Arundell’s agents concealed the taffeta-covered box containing relics of St. Clement in a custom-built pedestal of yellow Siena marble, ostensibly a simple statue support. A new ordeal began once the ship was captured, requiring the interventions of half a dozen ambassadors over eleven more years to get the crate, unopened—and alone among the consignments—to its destination. Although the box could not be exhibited, its saga encapsulates both the tenacity of the Westmorland’s frustrated consignors and the web of political, religious, and commercial networks required to move relics of all kinds from one side of Europe to another.

What is notably missing from this list are actual antiquities and old master paintings, apart from the minor or dubious examples noted above. This is precisely the point; as Brewer, Yarker, and Hornsby all stress, by 1778 it was increasingly difficult to wrest important original works from local governments who protected their artistic patrimony with increasing rigor and success. Indeed, the Westmorland’s cargo visualizes the extent to which the acquisition of old masterpieces had been replaced by a thriving, modern Neoclassicism based on copies, replicas, imitations, and inspirations. Even if such substitutes were hardly new, the project demonstrates how far the balance of real and imitative had shifted by the eighteenth century’s final decades while suggesting the need, as John Brewer underscores, to consider the host of subsidiary players—copyists and publishers but also innkeepers, servants, carters, and anchovy packers—whose participation has yet to be recovered. These are rich prizes still awaiting salvage, to which the recapture of the Westmorland leads the way.

Jeffrey Collins
Professor and Chair of Academic Programs, Bard Graduate Center

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.