Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The Grand Tour: Classical Antiquity and the British Class System

Between 1660 and 1789, hundreds of young British men, and a much smaller number of young British women, undertook a rite of passage, a secular pilgrimage of sorts, travelling through Europe to see the sights of Paris, Geneva, Venice and Rome.

Overseas travel of any sort was, of course, a possibility only for those with a certain level of financial means, but, whilst the wealthiest aristocrats traveled in private carriages with substantial retinues of servants, commissioning portraits from fashionable artists such as Pompeo Batoni, and buying up large collections of classical sculpture to ship home, it was possible for individuals of more modest means to travel with one or two companions, seeing the same sights, and returning, perhaps, with some volumes of Piranesi engravings, together with one's own book of sketches.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 5th Earl of Shaftesbury, as depicted by Pompeo Batoni (image is in the Public Domain)

The "Grand Tour" was not a uniquely British affair. Here J.W. von Goethe is depicted by J.H.W. Tischbein (image is in the Public Domain), with all the attributes of a grand tourist, although, unlike most of his British contemporaries, he made the journey in his thirties, when he was already an established writer. 

Although this "Grand Tour" shared many of the features of a pilgrimage (it followed an established route, with opportunities to meet fellow travelers along the way, and involved shared experiences at specific places), its aims were educational rather than religious. The education was as much social as intellectual: the idea of a "British Empire" was still in the process of being defined, but it was looking (at least, to the British upper classes) increasingly like a mirror image of the Roman Empire.

Ancient Rome had had three classes of free men: Patricians, who owned land and governed the empire; Equestrians, who served as officers in the army; and Plebians, who made their living by trade. Upward mobility was possible (even for a slave, who might hope to be freed, and whose free-born sons then had the status of citizens), but it involved a great deal of hard work: through commerce and wealth accumulation, if you were a Plebian aspiring to be an Equestrian; and through military service and political machinations if you were an Equestrian aspiring to be a patrician. The message of the Grand Tour was that advancement within modern Britain operated in much the same way.

Sir John Soane's Museum, as depicted in the Illustrated London News for 1864. Some of the Greek vases in his collection may be relics of his own, relatively modest, Grand Tour, but many more were acquired by him later in life when, as a successful architect, he was able to purchase them from younger men returning with more debts than assets (an occupational hazard of the Grand Tour).

The Temple family of Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, are a good example of this neo-Roman aspirational ideal. They had made their wealth, in the 16th Century, from the wool-trade. Thomas Temple purchased a knighthood from James I (a king who, on succeeding Elizabeth I, entered London in a Roman-style Triumph) in 1603 and, eight years later, upgraded it to a baronetcy (in effect, a knighthood that can be inherited). His successors took the Parliamentary side in the English Civil War, fighting with distinction in the army of Oliver Cromwell, but they quickly adapted to the new environment of the Restoration (knowing perfectly well the example of the Roman senators who transferred their allegiance from the Republic to the rule of Augustus Caesar). The Fourth Baronet was raised to the peerage in 1714.

Rome itself was the primary destination of the Grand Tour. All grand tourists had an itinerary that included the Colosseum, the temples of the Forum Romanum and the Pantheon, returning home with sketches of these monuments, the architectural features of which might subsequently be used as models for their own country seats. Sir William Hamilton (he who would later be cuckolded by Horatio, Lord Nelson), as British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples from 1764 to 1800, was a great promoter of the Grand Tour, enticing the tourists to extend their journey southwards, to the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, and to Paestum, where Greek, as well as Roman, antiquities could be seen.

The Temple of Saturn, in the Forum Romanum, as depicted by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (image is in the Public Domain).

The Temple of Athena at Paestum. Photo: Michael Johanning (licensed under GNU).

The English Banker, Henry Hoare (1705-1785) seems to have made his Grand Tour, like Goethe, when he was in his thirties, setting out in 1738, following the death of his mother. He was, by this stage, already married, with three children, so it is possible that they traveled as a family.

Henry Hoare, by William Hoare of Bath, The Getty Collection, 263439 (Photo: Getty Research Institute, Open Content Programme). 

We do not know Hoare's precise itinerary, but he seems to have been away for almost two years. On his return, inspired by the landscapes and monuments that he had seen, by artworks that he had viewed in continental collections, and by paintings that he himself owned, he set about transforming the garden that he had inherited from his parents at Stourhead, Wiltshire, into an allegory of classical antiquity, with a series of temples constructed by the builder, Henry Flitcroft. This constructed landscape served to demonstrate not only his wealth, but also his learning, taste, and refinement.

The Temple of Apollo at Stourhead. Photo: Hans Bernhard (Schnobby), licensed under CCA (GFDL-CC-BY-SA).

The Pantheon at Stourhead. Photo: Luke Gordon (licensed under CCA).

The Temple of Flora and bridge at Stourhead. The lake itself is artificial, and the walk around it is intended to evoke Aeneas's descent into the underworld, as described by the Roman poets, Vergil and Ovid.  

The view from the grotto at Stourhead. Grottoes are artificial caves, where the presence of mythical beings, such as nymphs, might be imagined. Photo: Neil Kennedy (licensed under CCA).

The gardens created by Hoare at Stourhead, as well as providing a lasting (if idealised) memory of his Grand Tour, are Picturesque: that is to say that they are carefully designed in such a way that specific viewpoints, such as those illustrated above, resemble the compositions of paintings, and specifically the works of artists fashionable during Hoare's lifetime: notably Claude Lorrain, Poussin, and Gaspard-Dughet. One painting that certainly influenced Hoare in the construction of his garden was Claude's "Landscape with Aeneas at Delos, which he himself owned.

"Landscape with Aeneas at Delos," by Claude Lorrain, c 1672, National Gallery NG1018 (image is in the Public Domain).

"Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice," by Nicolas Poussin, The Louvre, 7307 (image is in the Public Domain).

Landscape with Abraham and Isaac, by Gaspard-Dughet, c 1665, National Gallery, NG31 (image is in the Public Domain).

There was even a moral dimension to the Grand Tour, the artworks that inspired it, and the landscapes that were constructed to evoke it. Just as the character of Aeneas, in Vergil's Aeneid, is defined by his epic journey from the destruction of Troy to the lands where Rome would ultimately be built, so the character of a man such as Henry Hoare was defined by his (admittedly more leisured) progress through the landscape of ruined Rome; and just as Aeneas's greatness was something to be passed on to future generations (the Emperor Augustus claimed descent from him), so a landscape such as Stourhead, with its many layers of meaning, would become part of the inheritance of Hoare's heirs and successors.

The French Revolution, and, later, the Napoleonic Wars, made the Grand Tour more difficult, more dangerous and much more expensive. Lord Byron did make a Grand Tour of sorts, between 1809 and 1811, but few had his resources, or his family's naval connections, which he called upon more than once to assist him in his travels. Athens, rather than Rome, was the cultural high-point of his journey, from which he did not return alive, perhaps the clearest of indications that the era of the Grand Tour, as experienced by men such as Henry Hoare, had come to an end.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

1 comment: