The art of plunder

Imagine a transport aircraft packed with millions of dollars’ worth of New York auction-room acquisitions by high-end Chinese art collectors. Included are work by Jeff Koons, Annie Leibovitz and Andy Warhol, with a range of luxury American foods and other consumer goodies. Mid-flight it is hijacked to Iran and, once the consumables are sold off, the art is spirited into the state’s secret collection. Two and a half centuries later, in a very changed world, it is rediscovered ...

This is more or less the plot of the Ashmolean Museum’s gripping exhibition The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, except that the event occurred in 1778 and, instead of the cargo plane, we have the Westmorland, a 300-ton British merchant ship captured mid-passage between Leghorn and London by French warships. Its hold contained barrels of wine, anchovies and best olive oil, wheels of Parmesan, artificial flowers, luxury paper, medicines, tableware and saddlery. More significantly there were crates of artworks: 23 containing marble statues and 22 full of fine prints, paintings, architectural plans and books. The vessel was taken to Malaga, where the Spanish authorities valued the cargo at £100,000, then a fairly eye-watering sum. None of it, except for a single item, ever arrived at its intended destination.

Using contemporary inventories, art historians in Spain and England have tracked down a slice of the Westmorland’s cultural cargo for this exhibition. Most of it, after some royal cherry-picking, was marked with the letters “PY” (Presa Ynglesa), dumped in the vaults of the Real Academia in Madrid and largely forgotten, so that today it is in pristine condition. The inventories are arranged according to the initials stencilled by the shipping firm on to every crate, enabling many of the senders to be identified. These included a brother of George III, a director of the Bank of England, the Scottish painter-antiquary Allan Ramsay, and a Catholic priest remitting a secret hoard of holy relics for use in the chapel at Wardour Castle.

Most of the Westmorland’s customers, though, were the scions of wealthy families on the Grand Tour. With its mandatory stopping-off points on the land route between Calais and Naples, this was a well-trodden itinerary, and far more than just an “experience”. Britons taking their place among the elite needed to have not only great wealth but also impeccable taste, and this meant reinforcing your classical reading from Eton and Harrow with the effortless appreciation of Greco-Roman form. The Tour, therefore, involved serious study, as well as fun.

You didn’t do it on a shoestring, either, since much expensive shopping was involved, mostly interior decoration: for the hall, classical portrait busts and man-sized marble candelabras; for the mantelpiece, erotic mythological statues; for the ceiling, detailed designs in the antique style; for the library, fine books of prints; and, above all, pictures and architectural drawings. One young man, Frederick Ponsonby, snapped up plans of the Pantheon and of three ruined temples: was he thinking of building a folly on the estate? Another crate, that of Francis Basset, the 20-year-old heir to a Cornish mining fortune, contained the complete designs for a domestic chapel. Among Basset’s pictures were six brilliant landscapes by John Robert Cozens, and 14 albums of prints by Piranesi. Today they look exceptionally crisp, as if time had not touched them.

Watercolour view of the Arch of Titus (1770s) by an unknown artist, acquired by Lord Duncannon or his tutor Samuel Wells Thomson

Originals from the antique or the Old Masters were by now unobtainable, so copies were acquired off-the-shelf, or commissioned from locals and expatriates. One unidentified tourist got hold of a broken-nosed but otherwise excellent version of the bust of Antoninus Pius, while William, Duke of Gloucester, bought for his royal collection a delightful Medici Venus. In the respective consignments of Basset, John Henderson and George Legge were decent copies of a Titian, a Reni and a Raphael.

One immutable tradition was the Grand Tour portrait. For this, both Basset and Legge went to the top man, Rome’s Pompeo Batoni. Basset shelled out for the de luxe full-length, in which he leans nonchalantly on an antique plinth with both St Peter’s and the Castel Sant’Angelo in the distance; Legge economised with a seated indoor pose holding a map of Italy. In a letter about this, his father the Earl of Dartmouth remembered his own tour 25 years before. “I do not at all lament the expense you have put me to with Signor Battoni [sic],” he wrote, though he did wonder that young George had enough free time to sit for this artist, as “I think he kept me between 40 and 50 hours in all.”

Apart from art, the crates on the Westmorland contained belongings, especially books, brought from England for the outward journey – Basset, we find, had read Tristram Shandy, Ponsonby had a copy of Goldoni’s plays to help him learn Italian, and Sir John Henderson boned up on The Manners and Character of the French. Tourists also sent home trivial souvenirs, no doubt as family gifts – interesting rock samples, fans decorated with famous art works, artificial flowers made of paper and feathers. Despite the attempts at recovery by some owners, or by their insurers, none of the art, or the trivia, was recovered. The exception was the one item in the cargo the English authorities didn’t particularly welcome, but which Spain was only too pleased to forward on: the case of Catholic relics for Wardour Castle.

‘The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland’ is at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until August 27,

It will transfer to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven on October 4

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.