from The English Prize at YCBA

Lost & Found

The concept of college students traveling abroad to expand their horizons isn’t some 20th century idea that took hold after the invention of the airplane and the Eurail Pass. It’s been happening for centuries, as is shown in the new exhibit The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, an Episode of the Grand Tour, on the third floor of the Yale Center for British Art through January 13.

What an ideal show for a college town!

The main differences between such excursions then and now are the travel time (today, a few hours on a commercial aircraft; then, months on a boat) and the dangers involved.

These days, students might get their backpacks stolen from a Paris Café and be inconvenienced a few days. In the trip exhaustively detailed in The English Prize, the armed British merchant ship Westmorland was captured by a French warship in 1779 while sailing from the Tuscan city of Livorno back to London. The Westmorland’s passengers—86 of them, including many wealthy tourists and art collectors—were taken captive and held in a Spanish prison. The ship was seized by France as a prize of war. All the belongings, including crates and crates of valuable paintings, sculptures and other art treasures, were sold off.

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Something to write home about, surely: “Hello, Mom? I’m in jail!” But The English Prize doesn’t dwell excessively on the downside of this remarkable sea voyage. It lovingly recreates the sweeping grandeur of the era by piecing together the contents of the ship and effectively putting them on public display for the first time. Of the 778 items which arrived in Madrid, 464 have been found and identified, and dozens are on view at the YCBA.

The objects don’t have a lot in common in terms of style, materials or age, but they share a remarkable story. Despite the airs of tradition and antiquity, it’s a vibrant, adventurous, youthful tale of exploration, adventure, plunder, captivity and, ultimately, freedom. The show opens in a jolly manner, with a side room dedicated to explaining what The Grand Tour meant. The Grand Tour was a coming-of-age, rite-of-passage ritual undertaken by young men whose upper class parents had determined they should see the world. There were two such students, sons of a famous Commodore, aboard the Westmorland, as well as their tutor. There were some scholarly and cultural must-sees on the boys’ agenda, such as world-famous monuments or libraries, or the chance to visit with noted scholars and philosophers. But there is also an expectation of random sightseeing opportunities, souvenir purchases and plenty of downtime.

One of the defining images of the Grand Tour part of the exhibit is a detailed drawing by the famous cartoonist and caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson mocking the culture and manners of the French. It’s a bright, fun way for the Center for British Art to show the mindset of some of the Grand Tourists—set in their ways, superior, quick to stereotype. At the same time, Rowlandson’s drawing (as well as the more formalized frivolity of another artwork, Paul Sandby’s The Opening of the Carnival in Rome) is full of life, and the exhibit as a whole is just popping with people. There are depictions of gaping valleys, looming volcanoes and broad seascapes, but most of them have a human presence in them.

Prize is excellent at showing how people on these trips adjusted to these glorious new surroundings. Wiley Reveley’s “Temple Ruins at Paestrum” certainly shows those ruins, but they’re shunted to one side of the painting. The rest is sky and clouds.

The artifacts of the Westmorland are proudly on display, beautifully restored. Some of them might strike casual onlookers as the sort of thing you have to endure in a neighbor’s boring home-movie show. Maps and books and sketches don’t exactly leap out at you as colorful reminders of a fantastic journey, but investigate closer and you’ll see that every item is informed by this fresh context of shifting places, expanses of time and the fact that these purloined treasures were nearly lost altogether, 233 years ago.

The English Prize is accompanied by an elaborate art book of the same title, documents the objects aboard the Westmorland, profiles the passengers who owned them at the time, and chronicles what became of them following the seizure of the ship. The book also features over a dozen illuminating articles, providing contemporary appreciations of the paintings and other artworks. A contribution by art historian Frank Salmon of the University of Cambridge is titled “The Westmorland and Architecture,” and tries to divine the tastes of the ship’s passengers concerning the famous Roman temples they would likely have visited, and the progressive architectural styles of their own time.

The exhibit, which was shown last year at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology of the University of Oxford in England and will be at the Yale Center for British Art through Jan. 13, 2013, has special meaning here in New Haven. It reminds us of how much more diverse, and less canonical or class-oriented, education has become. It reminds of an era—which New Haven, as a port city, was part of—when exotic gifts from far off lands represented wealth and status and worldliness, before FedEx and same-day shipping made such possessions infinitely more accessible. It also shows us how, in some respects, how little has changed. The Westmorland passengers packed fold-up maps and light reading material just as we do today. That the maps are huge and stiff by our standards, or that the beach-reading books are the plays of Moliere and Goldoni, or the comic epic Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, is immaterial. We get it. These folks had packed for a long, frolicsome adventure. Boy, did they get one.

The English Prize—which spans several countries, and now claims a new continent with this visit to America’s largest museum of British art and culture—may have begun as a seagoing excursion for the elite. But it has landed with something for everybody.

The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, an Episode of the Grand Tour
Yale Center for British Art
1080 Chapel Street, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12-5pm through January 13, 2013
(203) 432-2800

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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