The Influence of the Grand Tour on Antique Collecting
by Bob Brooke
Today’s antique collector most likely doesn’t think about how the idea of collecting began and the influence the Grand Tour played in it. But if it weren’t for the Grand Tour, many of the decorative styles in furniture and accessories—Adams, Sheraton, Heppelwhite, Chippendale, and Rococo and Renaissance Revival—collected today would probably not have even been created.
The sons of elite English families of the 17th,18th , and early 19th centuries often spent two to four years traveling around Europe as an extension of their education to broaden their horizons and learn about language, architecture, geography, and culture in an experience known as the Grand Tour. The custom flourished from about 1660 until the creation of railroad networks in the 1840s. Though primarily associated with the British nobility, the sons, and later daughters of wealthy landed gentry also made similar trips. The sons of wealthy American families began making the journey after the American Revolution.
How It All Began
Richard Lassels, an expatriate Roman Catholic priest, first used the phrase “Grand Tour” in his 1670 book Voyage to Italy, published posthumously in Paris in 1670. In its introduction, Lassels listed four areas in which travel furnished "an accomplished, consummate traveler" with opportunities to experience first hand the intellectual, the social, the ethical, and the political life of the Continent.
The English gentry of the 17th century believed that what a person knew came from the physical stimuli to which he or she has been exposed. Thus, being on-site and seeing famous works of art and history was an all important part of the Grand Tour. So most Grand Tourists spent the majority of their time visiting museums and historic sites.
Once young men began embarking on these journeys, additional guidebooks and tour guides began to appear to meet the needs of the 20-something male and female travelers and their tutors traveling a standard European itinerary. They carried letters of reference and introduction with them as they departed from southern England, enabling them to access money and invitations along the way.
With nearly unlimited funds, aristocratic connections and months or years to roam, these wealthy young tourists commissioned paintings, perfected their language skills and mingled with the upper crust of the Continent.
The wealthy believed the primary value of the Grand Tour lay in the exposure both to classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and to the aristocratic and fashionably polite society of the European continent. In addition, it provided the only opportunity to view specific works of art, and possibly the only chance to hear certain music. A Grand Tour could last from several months to several years. The youthful Grand Tourists usually traveled in the company of a Cicerone, a knowledgeable guide or tutor.
However, the Grand Tour was neither a scholar's pilgrimage nor a religious one. Many Grand Tourists traveled with all the trapping—valets and coachmen, perhaps a cook, and certainly a scholarly guide.
For gentlemen, some works of art were essential to demonstrate the breadth and polish they had received from their tour. In Rome, Thomas Jenkins provided access to private collections of antiquities. Many had their portraits painted by Pompeo Batoni while posing among Roman antiquities.
The Acquisition of Souvenirs
The Grand Tour not only provided a cultural education but allowed those who could afford it the opportunity to buy things otherwise unavailable at home, which increased the participant’s prestige and standing. Grand Tourists would return with crates of art, books, pictures, sculpture, and items of culture, which would be displayed in libraries, cabinets, gardens, and drawing rooms, as well as the galleries built purposely for their display. The Grand Tour became a symbol of wealth and freedom and fueled the collections that would later become the foundation for today’s antique market.
An extensive tour through Italy as far as Naples undertaken by the “Collector” Earl of Arundel, together with his wife and children between 1613 and 1614 is what established the precedent for collecting while on the Tour. This is partly because he asked Inigo Jones, not yet established as an architect but already known as a great traveler, to act as his Cicerone.
The Grand Tourist was typically a young man with a thorough background in Greek and Latin literature as well as some leisure time, some means, and some interest in art. Most Grand Tourists, however, stayed for briefer periods and set out with less scholarly intentions, accompanied by a teacher or guardian, and expected to return home with souvenirs of their travels as well as an understanding of art and architecture formed by exposure to great masterpieces.