J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

The English Prize: Quite a Capture

The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, an Episode of the Grand Tour is a lavish, oversized, and no doubt highly priced art book. (I found a copy at my local library.) It’s unusual in that it catalogues not the work of a particular artist, school, or period, but the collecting activity of a particular class of people at a particular time, preserved by chance like Pompeii or Wolstenholme Town or some other archeological site preserved all of a piece and precisely dated.

The story of this collection began with the Grand Tour, an almost necessary part of the education of male English aristocrats in the late 1700s. Young gentlemen such as Francis Bassett (1757-1835), inheritor of copper mines in Cornwall, and George Legge, Viscount Lewisham (1755-1810), eldest son of the Earl of Dartmouth, would travel to Italy in the company of a mentor, described variously as a tutor, governor, companion (so as to allow him entry into the top social events), or “bear leader.” There the young aristocrats would socialize with others of the same class while studying art, fencing, language, and other genteel skills.

It was common for those Tourists to have their portraits painted, and some Italian artists, such as Pompeo Batoni, specialized in such commissions. They had a variety of poses and motifs available for choosing, showing the young man holding a map of Italy or standing in front of ruins so no one could miss the point that they were now cultured. Some of the more aesthetically ambitious Tourists would buy other artwork, classical artifacts, books, and other cultural items to ship home.

Dozens of chests from such young men, including Bassett and Lewisham, were loaded onto the English ship Westmoreland in the port of Livorno (Leghorn) in 1779. Then came news that the French and Spanish had declared war on Britain, turning what had been a civil war within the British Empire into a worldwide conflict. The captain of the Westmoreland armed his ship with cannon and obtained a letter of marque, allowing him to capture French and Spanish ships as a privateer.

At first this worked out well. The Westmoreland took a French cargo vessel. Then the tables turned, and two French ships stopped the Westmoreland in the eastern Mediterranean. The ship was sent to the Spanish port of Malaga, its perishable goods sold and its passengers exchanged. For four years the rest of the cargo sat in a warehouse.

With the arrival of peace in 1783, some of the British art patrons began to ask for their goods. Meanwhile, the Spanish prime minister learned about the captured artwork and decided to obtain the best pieces for King Carlos III and most of the rest for the new Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. Most of the English prize’s cargo thus remained in Spanish state museums.

Fortunately, because of the legalities of condemning those goods and good archival work by the institutions involved, there’s a very good record of what items came from what chests in that English prize. Further research allowed the scholars behind this book to locate correspondence connected with some of those works, especially the portraits, with individual Britons. The result was an exhibit and this book, capturing almost completely a moment in the collecting of British Tourists in 1779.

Personally, I’m not taken with the eighteenth century’s depictions of mythological subjects and landscapes, but I like most of the portraiture, and this book has a lot of it, in both painting and sculpture. The front cover shows Batoni’s portrait of young Bassett, leaning against a statue with a map of Rome in his hand. (How cultured!)

Bassett tried for years to get that painting back from Spain, and may even had commissioned a Spanish artist to make a copy. But Britain and Spain kept going to war against each other, so his portrait remained at the Real Academia, identified simply as a “Young Man” until the research behind this book connected all the dots.

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