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

By Ben Miller | 12 July 2012
An image of a colourful illustration of a crumbling Italian road bridge during the 18th century
Unknown artist, Arch of Titus (1770s). Gouache on paper. Inscribed on verso: No 16; Arco de Tito; No 10 Duncannon© Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Museo
Exhibition: The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, an Episode of the Grand Tour, Ashmolean Museum of art and Archaeology, Oxford, until August 27 2012

In January 1779, an armed merchant ship set sail from Livorno to London. Artists, aristocrats and art dealers were among its passengers, but the cargo on board was even more notable: a bounty of art and antiquities, books and luxury goods – including a pasta-friendly 32 wheels of Parmesan cheese – saw it declared a “prize of war” by the pair of French warships who captured it days into its journey.

An image of a sheet of white paper with a list in handwritten black ink on it
Lonjistas List Málaga (July 1783)© Archivo HistÃrico Nacional, Madrid, Estado
King Carlos the III of Spain acquired the Westmorland and its treasures, giving many of them to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. Other gems ended up in Spanish museums, and one even materialised in St Petersburg.

During the late 1990s, a major research project began to piece together what we know about the artefacts and their unwitting benefactors, and the findings make for a scintillating show with a catalogue of almost 200 pages full of essays and revelations.

Diplomats and dealers, landowners and lawyers, watercolour brushmen and Irish sculptors are all portrayed or represented through the works they left behind. Portraits of two men, part of the groups of wealthy young chaps who would criss-cross Europe in the eras before widespread rail routes, stand out.

“British tourists in Italy in the 1770s were time travellers, imagining themselves in the classical past amid the landscapes and ruins they encountered on their journeys,” says Dr Catherine Whistler, the Senior Curator for European Art at the Ashmolean, which has joined America’s oracular Yale Center for British Art, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and Spanish experts from the Royal Academia in weaving the narrative of some brilliant detective work by historians.

An image of an elegant 18th century bust of a woman in white marble against a purple backdrop
Unknown sculptor, Head of the Medici Venus. Copy of the antique Roman original (1770s). Marble© Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Museo
“The maps, books and antiquities that they purchased and works of art they commissioned were imbued with meaning and memories. This is the opportunity to step into a time capsule of this world and experience the fascinating story of the Westmorland.”

Many of the vital annotations have been added with the help of a remarkably intact inventory at the Madrid venue, where books and maps bear asides and margin notes scribbled by their owners.

They were initially puzzled by a mysterious marking, spelling the letters PY, on the academic texts and drawings, but eventually pinpointed it to the words Presa Ynglesa – The English Prize.

Once a mystery tag from the dusty scripts of a looted ship, that title is now the starting point for a new kind of Grand Tour awaiting visitors to the Ashmolean this summer.

  • Open 10am-6pm (closed Monday except Bank Holidays). Admission £6.36-£9. Book online.

More pictures:

An image of an oil painting of two 18th century ships at sea under moody skies
Robert Dodd, The capture of the Amazone by HMS Santa Margarita (July 29 1782). Oil on canvas© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
An image of a detailed black and white map with blank ink dating from the 18th century
Ignazio Benedetti after Giambattista Nolli and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, La topografia di Roma (1773). Inscribed on scroll: D Stevenson. Janry: 12 1778© Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Archivo-Biblioteca
An image of a dictionary with the page open to show Italian writing from 250 years ago
Annibale Antonini, Dizionario italiano, latino e francese in 2 vols. Lyons: Pietro Duplain (1770). Inscribed opposite title page of each volume: PY; on title page: PA Curzon© Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Archivo-Biblioteca
An image of a colourful fan showing a scene of a historic city from the 18th century
Fan depicting a View of St Peter's Basilica (1770s). Watercolour and gouache on vellum© Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas, Madrid
An image of a drawing of two explorers standing by the side of a sea with mountains
Jacob More, Bay of Naples and Vesuvius (circa 1778). Inscribed on mount, upper left: No 7; on verso: Napoles. Watercolour with pen and ink over graphite on paper© Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Museo
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