English prizes return at last from Grand Tour
The Times, 5/5/2012
The curiosity of an archaeologist about some suspect Roman urns in the collection of the National Museum of Archaeology in Madrid has led to a unique glimpse into the minds of 18th century Grand Tourists.
The urns turned out to be 18th century pastiches, and the doubts of José Maria Luzón Nogué in 1999 led to 12 years of research by scholars across three countries, and the main exhibition of the year at The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, The English Prize, which opens on May 27.
Luzón Nogué looked to the archives in Spain’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts which led him via a labyrinthine route to the treasures sent home by several men on the Grand Tour, which never arrived. The director of the Mellon Centre in London, Brian Allen, became aware of the project and he alerted the Yale Center for British Art in the United States.
“It gives us an extraordinary insight into a moment in time, particularly into the 1700s Grand Tour,” said Dr Catherine Whistler, the Ashmolean’s senior curator for European art. “But it’s not just what aristocrats were doing – Francis Bassett was a Cornish tin mining heir but he probably had more money than any of them. It tells us about fashion, what was interesting to them, and about interior design with drawings and objects that might eventually be turned into somebody’s Pompeii drawing room.”
There were also objects being sent back by Rome-based agents, such as Thomas Jenkins and James Byers, who were key in guiding the tourists as to where to buy and commission. In the 1770s, too, a number of British artists were working in Europe, and the tourists were encouraged to buy their work.
“British tourists in Italy in the 1770s were time-travellers,” said Dr Whistler, “imagining themselves in the classical past amidst the landscapes and ruins they encountered on their journeys. The maps, books and antiquities that they purchased and works of art they commissioned were imbued with meaning and memories.”
On January 7th 1779 the merchant ship Westmoreland, bound for London from Livorno, was captured off the eastern coast of Spain by two French warships and declared a “prize of war”. Its cargo was olive oil, barrels of anchovies, silk, medicinal drugs, Genoa paper, Parmesan cheeses, and objects collected on the Grand Tour that had been sent back to England. The value of the whole cargo was estimated to be £100,000, worth £6m today.
Working with scholars at Madrid’s Royal Fine Arts Academy – where many of the Westmoreland’s treasures ended up – the Mellon Centre in London and the Spanish archaeological museum, Scott Wilcox, chief curator of art at the Yale Center, has pieced together the full story of the lost treasures.
The exhibition will have 140 objects including paintings, drawings, sculptures, books and maps, giving the most precise picture yet of what was acquired by Grand Tourists like the Cornish tin heir Francis Bassett and George Legge, Viscount Lewisham.
Legge, then 22. and Bassett, 20, left Europe in 1775 and 1777 respectively, and though in Rome they both had their portraits painted by the society artist Pompeo Batoni, their paths probably never crossed, but both their collections happened to consigned to the Westmoreland. They were back in England in 1779 to hear the news of the loss of their treasures, which they were never to see again despite many attempts.
Malaga was a safe port where the French could sell their cargoes, and the Westmoreland’s arrival on January 8, and the following day a naval trial declared the ship a “Bonne Prise”.
The “soft” cargo quickly disappeared, but the works of art were claimed by King Carlos III of Spain. There were 23 crates of marble in statues, 35 pieces of marble statues and 22 crates of prints, portraits and books.
The researchers found 12 different inventories, each made at different times and for different purposes, so that there were many discrepancies and omissions. They also had to decipher the marks that identified the owners of the architectural drawings, fans, paintings – including engravings, gouaches, watercolours and copies after old master in various media – sculptures, tabletops, chimney pieces, candelabras, books, maps, musical scores, mineralogical samples, and ancient lamps.
The most important work of art was probably a Mengs painting, The Liberation of Andromeda by Perseus, which the French consul quickly made a present of to the French navy minister. Much of the rest was either kept by the king, given by him as gifts or left with the Royal Academy.
Bassett’s collection is headed by the full-length Batoni commission, watercolours by by the English painter John Robert Cozens, two portrait busts by the Irish sculptor Hewetson, and 14 volumes of engravings by Piranesi (one of which Piranesi dedicated to Bassett). His books covered history, geography and antiquities, and there was a copy of Laurence Stern’s comic masterpiece, Tristram Shandy.
Legge’s crates had guidebooks as well as books on art, literature, theatre and history, and there were engravings by Volpato and Salvator Rosa.
The marks on the crates have been deciphered as initials indicating the owners – Bassett’s were “F.Bt”, “F.B.” or “Fs.B.” and Legge, whose father was the Earl of Dartmouth, “E.D.” or “E.L.D.”– and some objects were also marked “PY” which has now been interpreted as “Presa Ynglesa”, or coming from the English prize.
“The range and variety of Westmorland objects, especially the richly informative array of books,” Scott writes in the exhibition catalogue, “provide a density and particularity of detail that have already reshaped previous thinking about the subject and offer the prospect, as we continue to study the Westmorland cargo and ponder its meanings, of a more complex and deeply nuanced understanding of the Grand Tour.”