Some of the most remarkable, and exciting, paintings Dickinson has sold have come from historic English collections and were acquired by ancestors on Grand Tour. This refers to a period of time spent travelling on the Continent – usually in Italy – by members of the aristocracy or wealthier merchant classes, and by those who sought their company or patronage: artists, art dealers, and chaperones. In today’s story we’ll take a closer look at a day in the life of an 18th century Grand Tourist.

Although travellers to Italy visited many of the cultural and historic landmarks and cities – Vesuvius in Naples, the Uffizi in Florence, and picturesque sites all around, the ultimate destination was Rome. Its environs, according to the Welsh artist and diarist Thomas Jones, ‘seemed formed in a peculiar manner by Nature for the Study of the Landscape-Painter’. Visitors would have reached Rome either by travelling across the channel and through France and the Alps by coach (a perilous route, and a lengthy one) or by sea, typically landing at Livorno, called ‘Leghorn’ by the English, on the Tuscan coast.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 – 1778), Design for Egyptian mural decoration for the Caffè degli Inglesi, 1769, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In Rome, your accommodations may have been suspect, but assuming you found a place to sleep, your first stop of the morning may have been the English Coffee house, where ex-pats including artists and wealthy travellers gathered to make introductions and exchange information. Known locally as the Caffè degli Inglesi, this gathering hub was located near the Spanish Steps on the Piazza di Spagna in a building with a decorated scheme by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. It was hardly a luxurious spot, as Jones observed upon his first visit, where he found ‘a filthy vaulted room, the walls of which [were] painted with Sphinxes, Obelisks and Pyramids, from capricious designs by Piranesi, and fitter to adorn the inside of an Egyptian-Sepulchre than a room of social conversation.’

If you were a member of the upper classes, you would likely engage the services of a cicerone or antiquarian to show you the most important sites in the Eternal City, either out of a genuine interest, or because you felt compelled by social convention or parental instruction. Philip Yorke, the future Early of Hardwicke, wrote, drolly, in a letter of his itinerary under the supervision of the antiquary James Byres: ‘antiquities and ruins when fine, statues and palaces when wet, and if it should be a clear day but unpleasantly windy we see pictures.’ Many tourists were even less enthusiastic about the sites: there is a story of two pupils, who, dejected by the expanse of the Uffizi, determined instead of contemplating its riches to hold a race hopping on one foot for the length of the sculpture corridor.

Antonio Joli (c.1700 – 1777), Naples from the West and The Gulf of Pozzuoli (a pair),
previously with Simon C. Dickinson Ltd.

As a Grand Tourist you might also spend some time perusing the wares at the home of a local antiquarian, selecting artworks and antiquities to ship home to your country house (in order to demonstrate your fine taste and deep pockets). The most famous of the dealers in Rome was Thomas Jenkins, who arrived in Italy in 1750 and remained there until nearly the end of his life. In Rome, Jenkins found a ready audience, and he was adept at prising masterpieces loose from the walls of Rome’s palazzi. In 1761 James Adam wrote that Jenkins had sold last winter ‘no less than £5000 worth of pictures &ca. to the English of which every person of any knowledge is convinced he put £4000 in his pocket.’ From 1757, he lived on the Corso in the parish of San Lorenzo in Lucina, providing travelling aristocrats with antique sculptures and other treasures – even if he was not above combining odd fragments into new ‘masterpieces’, or giving pieces a more attractive, aged patina with a bit of tobacco juice. Grand Tourists collected works by contemporary artists as well, with vedute by Canaletto, Guardi and Joli among the most popular souvenirs

As a Grand Tourist, you would also very likely sit for your portrait in Rome. Among the most celebrated portraitists was Pompeo Batoni, who, in addition to possessing a knack for flattery, charged considerably less for a portrait than did Sir Joshua Reynolds in England. In his portraits, Batoni typically included elements that emphasised a sitter’s intellegence and cultured air – a statue of Minerva, for instance, with its associations of intellect and wisdom, or a copy of Ovid – as well as details to situate the subject, beyond doubt, in Italy (perhaps the silhouette, in the background, of the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli or the Colosseum). Another favourite portraitist among late 18th Century Grand Tourists was the Swiss-born Angelica Kauffman, one of two female founding members of Britain’s Royal Academy. After returning to Rome following her marriage, in 1781, to the Italian painter Antonio Zucchi, Kauffman moved to Rome, where she operated an extremely successful studio visited by fashionable and noble patrons.

Pompeo Batoni (1708 – 1787), John, 3rd Lord Monson (1753 – 1806), standing full-length in a portico, with a statue of Roma behind and a spaniel at his feet, 1774, previously with Simon C. Dickinson Ltd.

Of course, there was plenty of danger to be had on Grand Tour, particularly while travelling – so you may well have spent part of day avoiding peril. Pickpockets were common and banditti roamed the highway in search of wealthy targets. The landscapists Jones and Francis Towne, travelling together around Naples, came upon just such a group in the wilderness, and made a hasty retreat. Towne declared that ‘however much he might admire such scenes in a picture – he did not relish them in Nature,’ Ever the artist, he couldn’t help but appreciate the artistic merit of the highwaymen, who, in his eyes, looked as they belonged in a Salvator Rosa painting.

And you might – whether from disease, foul play, or simply bad luck – meet your end on Grand Tour, far from home. Such was the case for poor William Pars, the talented British landscape painter in watercolours. According to his close friend, Jones, ‘having been with an English Gentleman at Tivoli making a drawing at a particular spot there called the Grotto of Neptune, he imprudently sat the whole time with his feet in the water – being taken with a fit of shivering he was wrapt up in a blanket and sent off immediately to Rome, where four days later he died of suffocation.’ Pars, like other British visitors who met a similar fate, was taken to the Protestant Cemetery to be buried. Located on the outskirts of the city, near Porta San Paolo and adjacent to the Pyramid of Cestius, the Protestant Cemetery is also the final resting place of the English poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Although they were responsible for bringing some of the greatest treasures in the nation back to England, Grand Tourists did not always enjoy the best reputation. The author Mary Wortley Montagu, who spent a number of years living in Italy, called her fellow English ‘the worst company in the world’ and ‘the greatest blockheads in nature’. And some tourists, it would seem, were downright peculiar. Lady Malmesbury wrote in letter dated 3 January 1992 that Charles William Henry Montagu Scott, Early of Dalkeith, ‘[had] never been well since he chose to lie down and sleep upon the hot lava upon Vesuvius.’ Perhaps it is no wonder that Grand Tourists were frequently the subject of caricatures!