On Wednesday evening, more than 150 people made their way to the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) to attend the opening lecture of The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, An Episode of the Grand Tour. The exhibition is touted as a cross-section of the Grand Tour, and is perhaps the most thorough one that currently exists.
Scott Wilcox, chief curator of art collections at the YCBA, began the discussion by introducing the story of the Westmorland. Upon leaving Italy in 1778, the British merchant ship was captured by the French Navy, and much of its contents eventually ended up in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. But the materials never received much attention until, in the 1990s, Dr. José María Luzón Nogué, Academician for the Real Academia, stumbled upon them. He then began a major research project to catalogue and identify these artistic and historical treasures; this research is the basis for the exhibition today.
But it wasn’t easy to classify and date these paintings, sculptures and books from crates upon crates of cargo. María Dolores Sánchez-Jáuregui, Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, talked about one of the first challenges that the team faced: finding out what the initials on the crates meant.
The English Prize is in many ways a triumph of archival work. As Dr. Luzón Nogué pointed out, “This is not just an exhibition; this is the presentation of a story, a complicated story. It took us plenty of time—and when I say us, I mean a hundred scholars, in Italy, France, Britain.”
But The English Prize tells more than one story—not just the story of the twenty-year undertaking of this massive, meticulous research project, but also the stories of the travelers who lost their treasures. Here, Sánchez-Jáuregui introduces one such Grand Tourist, Frances Basset.
(If Basset’s portrait, by Pompeo Batoni, looks familiar, that’s because it’s featured on the cover of the beautifully illustrated catalogue for the exhibition, The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, An Episode of the Grand Tour, published by Yale University Press in association with the Yale Center for British Art, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and the Real Academia de Belles Artes de San Fernando, Madrid.)
The discussion ended with a presentation of some of the more interesting artworks from the collection. In this video, Wilcox talks about six watercolor paintings by the famous 18th-century painter, John Robert Cozens, comparing his older works to his earlier ones, while Sánchez-Jáuregui introduces an engraving dedicated by Giovanni Battista Piranesi to Frances Basset, explaining as well how it sheds light on the role of tutors on the Grand Tour.
In keeping with the spirit of the historical event, the reception following the talk boasted a wheel of Parmesan cheese (32 wheels of the very dairy product was also on board the Westmorland!).
The English Prize is open from October 4, 2012 to January 13, 2013 at the YCBA. Admission is free and more details can be found here. The catalogue, edited by María Dolores Sánchez-Jáuregui Alpañés and Scott Wilcox, is now available from YUP.