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  • Tourist Treasures: Plunder and Collection on the Grand Tour
  • Paul Stock
The English Prize. The Capture of the Westmorland: An Episode of the Grand Tour. An exhibition held at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, 17 May-27 August 2012; and the Yale Center for British Art, 4 October 2012-13 January 2013. Accompanying volume edited by Maria Dolores Sánchez-Jáuregui and Scott Wilcox (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012). Pp. xiv + 378. $75.00.

The English Prize, an exhibition held at the Ashmolean Museum and the Yale Center for British Art, is a marvelous achievement; rarely have I seen an exhibit which so successfully combines accessibility with scholarly rigor and import. Its focus is the Westmorland, a vessel loaded with objects acquired by British Grand Tourists and captured as war booty by the French in 1779. The cargo—which included books, antiquities, paintings, and prints, as well as olive oil, fish, silk, and medicinal drugs—was then purchased by the Compañia de Lonjistas de Madrid, an organization of Spanish commercial agents. The perishable merchandise was sold quickly, but the crates of art objects languished until 1783 before being sent to the Real Academia de Belles Artes de San Fernando in Madrid for examination. A few objects were purchased by the Spanish king, but the majority were not recovered by the Compañia and were thus absorbed into the Academia's collections. The foundation of the exhibition is a carefully contextualized assembly of the Westmorland's contents based upon painstaking archival work in Spain, Italy, France, and Britain. Crucially, though, it uses the objects as a launching pad for wider discussion about the Grand Tour: the practicalities of travel; the identities of tourists and collectors; the mechanics and aesthetics of the art trade; and the social roles of tutors, artists, and agents. The accompanying volume describes the exhibition as a "time capsule" or "snapshot" of the late eighteenth century, but these are slightly unhelpful phrases that imply unmediated access to a pristine past (ix, 81). In fact, the exhibition does something far more interesting and subtle. It presents a number of interlocking narratives about the interpretation and uses of the past, from the Grand Tourists' preoccupation with supposed classical aesthetics [End Page 323] and values, to the exhibit's own story of archival detection and display. In this respect The English Prize is a meditation on how people use objects to define and interpret both their own culture and the cultures of the past.

The exhibition's most important theme is the business of tourism in the eighteenth century. It provides a wealth of detail about the commercial life and consumer culture intrinsic to Grand Tourism; articles in the volume explore, among other things, the complexities of the art trade in Rome and the challenges of trading and transportation routes, as well as the convoluted provenance of the Westmorland's cargo. This attentiveness to the circulation of goods and individuals allows us to appreciate the dynamic internationalism of eighteenth-century elite culture, and complicates over-familiar clichés about the emerging "nationalism" or disembodied "cosmopolitanism" of the period. To take one example, a decorative stone tabletop, inlaid with marbles from ancient quarries in Europe, Asia, and Africa (cat. 124), symbolizes not only the economic networks crucial to production and sale, but also the close relationship between antiquarian curiosity and decorative modernity in eighteenth-century thought. Importantly, too, the exhibition shows how the commercial realities of the art market affected aesthetic priorities. For instance, the relative scarcity of available Old Masters, as well as newly restrictive Roman export laws, stoked greater interest in reproductions and off-the-shelf souvenir prints designed for the tourist market. In their article, Jonathan Yarker and Clare Hornsby stress a crucial and underexplored topic: the role of commercial dealers in shaping the artistic interests of patrons and collectors (63-87). This analysis places market forces and business imperatives at the very center of eighteenth-century taste, challenging more conventional interpretations founded solely on aesthetic or moral sensibility. The volume and exhibition focus on the "sociability" of the Grand Tour: that is, the importance of socializing, performance, and public commemoration. In her...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 323-326
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-13
Open Access
No
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