14. The Grand Tour

To celebrate the release this week of Landmark Listings on the English Heritage website, which commemorates the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act, today’s wreck is a well-known site included among the first batch, HMS Colossus.

Each week thereafter will see one or more designated sites in focus (designated wreck, listed building, registered battlefield, registered park or garden, scheduled ancient monument). The aim is to place each of these monuments in an important and sometimes surprising national context. Some more wrecks will turn up further down the line, so I will include these as and when they appear on the list.

For Colossus, I chose to emphasise the way that she weaved in and out of Nelson’s orbit, first by being in the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797 in company with his command, the Minerve. The collection of Greek pottery also lost in her represents another connection to Nelson via the collector who despatched it home and which is now reunited with his earlier collection after a two-century delay and detour off the Isles of Scilly!

In wider terms the Colossus is also a rare example of a wreck having explicit connections with the Grand Tour and continental interests so beloved of English antiquarians, aristocrats, and artists from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Perhaps the most exceptional such collection is Sir John Soane’s Museum, in being the collection of a Grand Tourist who collected architectural fragments and was friendly with a painter who was another Grand Tourist (Turner), whose works appear in the collection. There are also works by an Italian artist who painted works for the Grand Tourist market (Canaletto) and the museum’s archives contain many drawings by another architect inspired by the Classical past seen on his own Grand Tour (Robert Adam).

So many artworks must have miscarried en route from the Mediterranean for England, including our waters, instances of which, I suspect, are under-reported. Contemporary sources appear very tight-lipped on the subject, but occasionally we obtain a glimpse of artworks lost to the sea rather than the hazards of time. For example, there is a rudimentary account of a “foreign” ship said to have been lost near Salcombe with her cargo of marble statues c.1750, while the Castor, carrying a cargo of Graeco-Roman sculptures, is an identified site off Dungeness, lost 1894.

As ever, if you have any suggestions for new inclusions or updates within this week’s theme, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Further afield the Vrouw Maria was lost in 1771 in the Baltic while bound from Amsterdam to St. Petersburg with artworks purchased on behalf of Catherine the Great. It is often said that among them were some Rembrandts, but to date it is not even known how much of this cargo has survived, or even was loaded, on the Vrouw Maria.

Finally, of course, and not shipwreck-related, last year the fantastic exhibition The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmoreland, vividly showed another way such artefacts could miscarry – through privateering. The artefacts from the Westmoreland ended up in Spanish collections, rather than the English ones for which they were destined. The exhibition catalogue is fascinating.

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