In New Haven, Connecticut, right now there is a rare opportunity to get a taste of the world of the Smithsonian's founding donor, James Smithson. At the Yale Center for British Art, an exhibition that was years in the making recently opened, after a stint this past spring at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. The show is about an English ship--the Westmorland--that was captured in 1779 after leaving Livorno, Italy, loaded down with treasures that young English gentlemen had purchased on the Grand Tour.
The Grand Tour, a trip to the European continent, with Italy as the prime destination, typically lasted a year or more. It was part of virtually every wealthy young Englishman's education--offering a chance to soak up the culture of classical antiquity and the Renaissance (and to party on the Continent, where the rules of society were a little more permissive).
The way that we pick up postcards and trinkets today, young men like Smithson bought prints by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (there were 40 volumes of prints by Piranesi on the Westmorland!), antiquities fresh from recent excavations, copies of ancient statues, books, marble tabletops and much more. Typically, these handsome young bucks had their portraits painted, too, usually with some ruins or some other icon of Rome in the background.
The French (who were at war with England in 1779 on account of having joined the U.S. in the Revolutionary War) took the Westmorland, their "English Prize," to the nearest port (Málaga, Spain) to sell the contents. The anchovies, parmesan cheese, olive oil, and other goodies were sold right off the dock, but most all the Grand Tour treasures were bought by the King, who deposited them in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid. And there they stayed, for over two hundred years.
In the late 1990s, scholars at Madrid's Royal Academy began to piece together this amazing story, which had been essentially forgotten. Thus began a real detective story, trying to match the objects with their original owners--the British lords who were known only by the initials that were stamped on the packing crates. One of their first successes involved "H.R.H.D.G." - which turned out to be His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester, the younger brother of King George III. Historians still haven't identified all of the owners, but the exhibit highlights some of the discoveries they have made so far, and the exquisite objects collected by these men.
James Smithson was abroad about a decade after this episode (he was only 14 years old in 1779). He spent almost seven years on his Grand Tour, including several in Italy (the French Revolution and the war that followed coupled with Smithson’s dread of sea travel meant he stayed in Europe much longer than he might have otherwise).
Smithson was a little different than your average English aristocrat abroad, as he was interested in building his mineral cabinet and connecting with scientific circles across Europe. "It is only by exchange and mutual assistance that naturallists [sic] can possibly ever succeed in assembling together a collection of subjects of their study," he wrote to one of his Italian scientist friends.
But Smithson was no stranger to the perils that faced a fashionable Grand Tourist in the late 18th century. He lost a trunk full of books in Italy, which he was never able to recover ("The French deranged all my plans, and I have not heard a word of my case of books since," he told one friend). And when he was back on the Continent again in the early 1800s, he had his passport stolen--by a French policeman who was convinced Smithson was a spy and snuck into his room and took it!)--but that’s another story for another day...
The English Prize: The Capture of the "Westmorland," an Episode of the Grand Tour is on at the Yale Center for British Art until January 13, 2013.
- Smithson's Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
- The Lost World of James Smithson, by Heather Ewing
- Record Unit 7000 - James Smithson Collection, c. 1974, 1981-1983, Smithsonian Institution Archives