I recently attended an “Art In Context” lecture at Yale’s British Art Center which highlighted the opening of an exhibit entitled “The English Prize.” It’s a small but very interesting show, not just for the artwork but for the intriguing story behind it. And given the unique insights it gives to “The Grand Tour”—a term we aficionados of British history hear so often—I thought I would share some of the fascinating things I learned.
All of the pieces on display were part of the cargo carried by the Westmoreland, a 26-gun British merchant ship which set sail for London from Livorno, Italy in January 1779. Other goods included parmesan cheese, anchovies, olive oil and textiles, but the fifty crates containing artwork acquired by English “Grand Tourists” and other travelers was the most valuable loot. For loot it became when the ship was captured by two French warships and declared a prize of war.
The contents were sold off in Spain, and much of it was purchased by King Carlos III (though one painting ended up in Catherine the Great’s collection in St. Petersburg.) Because a
detailed inventory listing who owned what ended up being preserved, scholars recently began taking a closer look at this seemingly insignificant moment and as they looked more carefully at the individual pieces, they realized that taken together, the captured art actually showed a grand picture—as the Yale exhibit states, “It is a rare time capsule, giving insights into the personalities and trends of the important cultural phenomena known as the Grand Tour.”
Now, most of us have heard the term “Grand Tour” and know it refers to the trip through the Continent made by rich young British gentlemen in order to acquire some polish. However, the scholars looking at the Westmoreland cargo have learned some wonderful details about this rite of passage by looking at who had purchased the artwork, and then going back and studying the letters and diaries of those individuals.
From those sources, we have learned that the ritual had a well-established route that was followed by many of the travelers. The first stop was Paris, where the young men were expected to learn about the social graces—dancing, fencing, and how to dress fashionably, as well as the art of conversation and an appreciation of the theatre. From there, they would head south, usually to Nimes, where they would get their first exposure to the classical Roman ruins of the Mediterranean area. From there, they often headed across the Alps and stopped in Geneva before heading south into the Italian peninsula.
Rome were the ultimate destination (with Florence and Naples—especially at Carnival time—also important stops.) It was here that the classical education that these young gentlemen studied at school and university was meant to come alive. But how, you might wonder, did these callow youths appreciate all the culture and history surrounding them? An excellent question! And that brings us to another interesting detail of the Grand Tour.
Traveling with a tutor was considered part of the ritual. Often these men were teachers the young gentlemen had become acquainted with during their university studies, but a few of them were actually professional tutors, who studied specifically to lead this specific educational trip. Through previous travels, they often had well-established connections in Rome with artists and dealers. This was important because collecting was a large part of the Tour’s purpose. But more on that in a moment.
Letters and diaries show that relationship between a tutor and his protégé was far from a simple teacher-student relationship. The young man’s father expected the tutor to control the finances and the wilder impulses of his son. And yet, the two men were travel companions for a lengthy period of time, and were together, as we say today, 24/7, so they often developed a close friendship. (Many Grand Tour tutors went on to become influential men in their own right—government ambassadors, playwrights to name just a few—because of the bonds they had developed with their aristocratic pupils.)
The tutor’s official role was to show his pupil the important classical sites and through these travels to educate him to appreciate the art and culture of classical antiquity. And in doing so, he often shaped that young gentleman’s taste in art. One of the individual travelers highlighted in the exhibit is Francis Basset, who at age 12 came into great wealth on inheriting copper and tin mines in southern England. After attending Harrow and Cambridge, he hired William Sands to guide him on his Tour.
Sands was a professional tutor with many useful connections in Rome, and through his journals we have learned many interesting details of the Grand Tour. There was a well-established English community in the Eternal City, and on arrival, Grand Tour travelers would stay in this enclave. There, they would usually engage the services of a resident agent/dealer—James Byres and Thomas Jenkins were the two most prominent—to help arrange access to artist studios and to help negotiate the purchases of antiquities. Who the tutor or agent knew often helped shape the taste of the pupil. For example, Sands was good friends with the noted Italian artist Giovanni Piranesi, who was known for his dramatic etchings of classical subjects. So it’s no surprise that Basset’s crates on the Westmoreland contained numerous prints by Piranesi. (Other notable pieces among the captured art include watercolors by John Robert Cozens and portrait busts by Irish sculptor Christopher Hewetson, who was working in Rome.)
Perhaps the most significant piece of art among the Westmoreland’s treasure is the full length portrait of Basset by the painter Pompeo Batoni because it’s a wonderful example of yet another important cultural tradition of the time—having a formal Grand Tour portrait painted to display at home. There is a very specific symbolism to these portraits—the gentlemen are usually shown holding a map of Rome, which indicates that they had visited the city. Fragments of ruins are meant to show their familiarity with classical art, and lastly, the scenic views of important buildings in the background serve to show how well-traveled they were.
These portraits were intended to be hung in a prominent place back home and their purpose was not only to be a “travel snapshot” for the men shown, but also to trumpet to viewers that the subject of the portrait was a sophisticated, well-traveled, well-cultured individual.
I hope you have enjoyed this quick dash through the Grand Tour. Now, let’s play collector too! If you could choose any piece of art from Rome to bring home, what would your heart desire? I would have asked an agent to find me a chalk drawing done by Michelangelo or DaVinci. Or perhaps some Roman coins, or . . . Sigh—It’s so hard to choose!