The Westmorland was a merchant ship, sailing annually between England and Italy. It was the winter of 1778/9, and she was heading home from Livorno, laden with precious art and antiquities. She met her nemesis off the Spanish coast at the hands of the French, and her cargo went missing from history…
…until a chance finding in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid set in motion a project that lured researchers along an intricate trail of 18th century documents in archives across Europe, and has culminated, nearly 15 years later, in a fascinating exhibition newly opened at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.
Jill Glenn went along to discover more about the Westmorland and the goods that the Spanish called ‘the English Prize’…
The exhibition’s title – The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland: an Episode of the Grand Tour – must be one of the longest on record, but you couldn’t leave any of it out. It encompasses perfectly the three main strands of the show, and it’s fitting that it starts with the words The English Prize for it was the acronym PY, ‘Presa Ynglesa’, that was to prove invaluable in tracking down the traders and travellers whose goods were aboard, and in fleshing out the bones of a story that had been barely skeletal for two hundred years.
The exhibition asks you on a journey, into late 18th century Europe, but also shares with you the unravelling of the mystery behind the artefacts on display.
The small opening gallery, Travelling to Italy, is perhaps a little dull, but it sets the scene adequately for the glories that are to come; there are a few maps and introductory pictures, and a showcase of guidebooks – ranging from the practical (the mail to London leaves on…) to the cultural (the history of Florence begins with…) – plus general reading material: a copy of Tristram Shandy, for example, annotated in a shaky hand by a coach traveller being jolted through the Alps.
Crossing the bridge over the atrium into the exhibition proper (not unlike boarding a ship by gangplank), you pass into a different world, a different level of content and display. This is the story of the 90 crates of antiquities and artefacts removed from the Westmorland in the port of Malaga, after she’d been hunted down by two French frigates. The ship herself was forced to sail on, under a new name and a different flag, to fight against the British in the American War of Independence. Oh, the affrontery.
The irony is that the Westmorland had long been delayed in Livorno before departing, while awaiting the arrival of a ‘marque’ from the Admiralty… to give its captain sole rights to the proceeds of any vessels that he might take as prizes of war. By the time she was captured, she had already seized a Danish ship herself. Had Willis Machell sailed for London in good time, he might have avoided not only the complaints of the food merchants who were shipping their produce (32 wheels of Parmesan cheese, for example, plus olives and anchovies; a veritable Mediterranean feast) but also the loss of the whole cargo…
Unknown artist • Portrait of an Unknown Man © Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Museo
…although then, of course, this whole time capsule would also have been lost. The Westmorland was bringing to England souvenirs that were to have transformed the homes of their owners; the crates contained everything from fine art to off-the-shelf souvenirs, 18th century-style, and two hundred years on, discovering their provenance has begun to transform understanding of what it was like to be on the Grand Tour – a European filter through which young Englishmen of rank and money had to pass before they could consider their education complete. ‘A man who has not been to Italy is always conscious of an inferiority,’ wrote Samuel Johnson, just a couple of years before the Westmorland episode.
Not everything on board had intrinsic value, but the whole now constitutes, as the Duke of Gloucester (whose family had goods on the vessel) put it at the launch, “a monument to British tourist taste”. Amy Meyers, of the Yale Center for British Art which has co-organised the show with the Ashmolean, calls them “extraordinarily diverse treasures”.
When the cargo arrived in Malaga, once the commodities had been sold, or eaten, the remainder was acquired by the Spanish king and transferred to the Real Academia in Madrid, where most of it languished unknown until the 1990s when an anomaly – a sculpture clearly not as old as was claimed – kickstarted the detective work. When ‘PY’ had been decoded, an astonishing assortment of documents – such as the Westmorland’s manifest and a detailed inventory of the king’s haul as it was transferred to Madrid – began to come to light. Then the painstaking research work began, in Spanish, Italian, French and British archives, matching the spoils of war to their one-time owners, whose attempts to recover their belongings had come to nothing. It is a fascinating tale, full of anecdote and coincidence, that the Ashmolean presents extremely well.
The English Prize is not only about the goods; indeed, in some ways the goods are secondary. It is about the people – the young travellers, their tutors, their dealers; it’s about their taste, their plans, their visions for the future.
This is a story that is constantly unfolding; indeed, it may never end, and perhaps that mystery is part of its appeal. That it has been unravelled thus far is a tribute not only to years of international research and co-operation, but also to the diligence of the scribes and record-keepers in Malaga all those years ago. There’s something to be said for bureaucracy, after all…
The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland: an Episode of the Grand Tour continues to 27 August