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The Grand Tour

Updated on April 16, 2019
John Welford profile image

John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.

Who Were the Grand Tourists?

It has been estimated that some 40,000 Britons undertook the Grand Tour during the period from 1750 to 1825. They were nearly all the eldest sons of wealthy aristocrats and they would have undertaken the Tour when aged anything between 15 and 21.

The notion behind the Tour was that the education provided by the great Public Schools (i.e. institutions such as Eton, Harrow and Winchester) was not particularly well-rounded, and in order to be fully educated it was important to have first-hand knowledge of great art and architecture. In the days before public art galleries (London’s National Gallery dates from 1824) it was impossible to see the works of masters such as Titian and Raphael. You had to travel to where they were in order to see them, and in most cases that meant Italy.

Aristocratic young men were given an education that placed great emphasis on the classical languages, particularly Latin. In order to put flesh on the bones, where better to go than Rome to view the remains of its ancient past?

Also, many people of this class were expected to play a role in politics and diplomacy. That meant knowing foreign languages, the teaching of which was largely ignored by the Public Schools. In order to learn French or Italian you had to spend time in France or Italy.

An Expensive Business

The Grand Tour was only available for families with very deep pockets. A tour could last up to five years, and the participants did not expect to spend much time in student hostels! A tourist would take at least one servant with them, and some would be accompanied by several. They would travel in their own horse-drawn carriage, with all the expense that that entailed, and they might well hire extra staff such as porters during their travels.

It has been estimated that some fathers spent as much as £10,000 a year on financing their son and heir’s Grand Tour – the equivalent of millions today.

Some Danger Involved

As soon as a tourist set foot in France they would become open to the attentions of highwaymen and tricksters. Some learned – the hard way – the benefits of keeping gold coins hidden about their person.

Tourists would be exposed to many threats to their health, such as diseases to which they had no immunity and untrustworthy water supplies. Many took well-stocked medicine chests with them.

On reaching Marseilles, the route to Italy was either by sea – with the risk of being attacked by pirates – or across the Alps. The latter route meant traversing Alpine passes shrouded in furs against the cold and sometimes having to follow narrow tracks with sheer drops to the valley below.

Indulging in the Arts

Once in Italy, the tourist could head for Venice, hopefully in time for the annual carnival. This was an opportunity for enjoying oneself at masked balls or taking part in gondola races, and for soaking up the culture provided by Venetian architecture and the artistic works of Canaletto and many others.

Another popular destination was Florence, where many great works by the Old Masters could be seen. However, Rome was always the greatest magnet, not least for the ruins of the Forum and better preserved buildings such as the Colosseum.

Some tourists ventured further south to visit the ruins towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, although these have become far more visible in more recent times thanks to later excavations.

It must also be pointed out that not all Grand Tourists were as conscientious in soaking up the culture as their fathers might have wished. It should surprise no-one that sending a rich young man off to France and Italy, far away from parental control, might offer temptations to behave badly, and that was certainly the case in many instances.

What Did the Grand Tourists Come Back with?

Many deep-pocketed tourists were able to buy works of art that took their fancy and return with them to Britain. Many great country houses today have their walls lined in part with purchases made by past Grand Tourists. Some of these works have subsequently found their way into public collections such as those of the National Gallery and major regional art galleries.

Landscapes by artists such as Claude and Poussin were sometimes used by estate owners to guide garden designers such as “Capability” Brown and Humphrey Repton towards the production of their own classical landscapes.

It also became the custom for Grand Tourists to have their own portraits painted in front of a famous antiquity. This was a somewhat more expensive – and far more time-consuming – version of the modern in situ “selfie”.

Apart from paintings, tourists collected sculptures, pottery, objets d’art and furniture, many examples of which can still be seen today in properties now owned by the National Trust and English Heritage.

Sons of aristocrats who later inherited their fathers’ estates were sometimes inspired to re-design their great houses along the lines of sketches they had made while on tour. The Italianate “Palladian” designs of Robert and James Adam owe their origin to this tendency.

Always a Success?

By no means. As mentioned earlier, not every Grand Tourist took the event as seriously as was intended. Although the average tourist returned to England as a far more sophisticated person than they had been when they left, some had acquired habits that attracted mockery and ridicule from stay-at-homes.

These included ornate clothes, extravagant wigs and foppish attitudes.

The Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith was of the opinion that the average tourist returned “more conceited, less principled, more dissipated and more incapable of study or business than if he had stayed at home.”

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