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The story of the ‘Westmorland’, an armed merchant ship sailing from Livorno to London in January 1779, is one of colourful 18th-century personalities and modern detective work. Consigned to the ship, by a cast of characters that included artists, aristocrats and dealers, was a precious cargo of art and antiquities, books, and luxury goods, including 32 wheels of Parmesan cheese. The ‘Westmorland’ was captured by two French warships on 7 January and declared a ‘prize of war’. The majority of the cargo was acquired by King Carlos III of Spain who presented many of the items to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid. Others were dispersed across museums in Spain, and one painting ended up as far away as St Petersburg.

Following an extraordinary research project begun in the 1990s in the archives in Madrid, scholars have been able to trace the history and learn the fate of many of the items on board the ship. ‘The English Prize’ presents over 120 objects which were on the ‘Westmorland’ when it was captured. Highlights include portraits of two of the Grand Tourists by Pompeo Batoni; a group of amazingly fresh watercolours by a young John Robert Cozens; and portrait busts by Irish sculptor Christopher Hewetson.

The exhibition reveals details about the diverse group of travellers who had consigned their belongings to the ship. Among them we find the painter Allan Ramsay; a diplomat and art dealer, John Udny; and such a high ranking aristocrat as the Duke of Gloucester, brother of King George III.‘The English Prize’ is a vivid recreation of the Grand Tour and events on the high seas of 18th-century Europe.

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