When looking through an antiquities catalogue, it’s not uncommon to see pieces described as ‘style’ or as being from the ‘Grand Tour Period’. For a collector at the beginning of their antiquities journey these terms can be confusing. In this article, we want to run you through what the Grand Tour was, who went on it and ultimately how that relates to the antiquities you love!  

What was the Grand Tour?

Simply put, the Grand Tour was a Classical tour of Europe undertaken by European noblemen in the 17th and 18th Century. It was an event that theses men did on mass as it was seen to beneficial to their personal growth. Perhaps surprisingly, historians were not the first to use ‘Grand Tour.’ The term was first coined by the Catholic priest and writer Richard Lassels in his influential 1670 travel book, The Voyage of Italy.

The itinerary nearly always started in Paris with then travel around France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain but most importantly Italy. Sometimes they’d study for short periods in the universities such as at Leiden. However, the main activities would be touring historical sites as well as general aristocratic socialising. The trips were considerable in length and could last anywhere from around 6 months to 3 years. Originally, they were fairly disorganised but over time a considerable tourist industry grew. The trips could almost be in the sense of a ‘tour’ where one guide guaranteed the safe passage and enlightenment of the student they were accompanying.  

Illustration of fragments of sculpture for book on Ancient Rome by Piranesi, Giovanni Battista © British Library Board, c13091-62

It’s hard to estimate an exact figure of how many people embarked on Grand Tours. However, especially for the most dominant group – the English, we have lots of qualitive observations of how numerous they were. For example, in 1732 Lord Waldgreave commented that Paris ‘swarms with English’. In Italy, the Earl of Essex remarked in 1733 that he’d been to an opera in Bologna and there were 32 English at the performance.

Who went on the Grand Tour?

Typically, the Grand Tour was undertaken by the rich noblemen of Britain. Indeed, for the Regency gentleman it was a fundamental culmination of their studies. Much of their schooling would have been based around Classical History, art and Latin, so what they saw was this education in the flesh! The inspiration for this ‘hands on’ teaching actually came from the Classics itself. One of Plato’s core beliefs was that it’s always better to learn directly than it was through secondary sources.

There are many English noblemen whose Grand Tours are significantly documented, whether that be through letters, diaries or published guides. One such example is the 2nd Earl of Egremont. From his letters we know that he spent two years at an academy in Paris, before travelling throughout France and Italy. He travelled with his tutor Mr Campbell and later his friend George Wyndham, and was in Europe between 1727 and 1730. It would heavily inspire him to have a collection of, mainly replica, classical pieces in his English stately home. A famous participant in the Grand Tour has to be Sir John Soane. The son of a bricklayer, he studied to be an architect. After getting a Gold Medal for his studies, King George III funded his own Grand Tour. This tour ended up being a fundamental influence on his later architectural work. In fact, his most notable buildings are those that experimented with neo-classical style.

Learn more about the Sir John Soane Museum listed in our top 10 UK museums

John Soane in The European Magazine and London Review © British Library Board, 064374

What’s the Grand Tour got to do with Antiquities?

Encouraged the Collecting of Antiquities

As already mentioned, Classical History was already a central part of the curriculum for these noblemen. However, the institution of the Grand Tour made knowledge of the Classics and an appreciation for Classical Art a mark of wealth and prestige. Therefore, upon their return, many nobles would bring back with them ancient antiquities. For example, this Roman sarcophagus in the Met Museum was purchased by the Third Duke of Beaufort in Rome on his Grand Tour. In 1733 he installed the sarcophagus as a talking piece and demonstration of his worldliness. Indeed, some of the most sought-after antiquities are those that have a provenance that date back to this original purchase. In general, it’s important to know that many antiquities made their way to Britain because of collecting in this period; even if the provenance isn’t named that far back!

Read More on the history of Collecting Antiquities

Photo by Matteo Maretto on Unsplash

The Creation of Replica’s

Of course, not everyone could afford to purchase a vast amount of antiquities – even if they were rich enough to go on a Grand Tour. Therefore, lots of replica pieces were made for both purchase on the continent and back in England. This goes from large marble statues to small replica glass and miniature renditions of famous works of art. When buying classical art, grand tour pieces are always good to be aware of. It’s normal practice to sell them alongside authentic antiquities – but it should be clearly stated with descriptions like ‘style’ or with the Grand Tour dates. As always, if you’re ensure you should ask the seller. These replicas are entirely bad and tell their own fascinating history as they’re over 200 years old at least. They remind us that people have always loved ancient art and can complement an existing antiquities collection very nicely.

Read More on the influence Classical Art has on Modern Art

grand tour glass
Grand Tour Glass Pieces previously sold at Pax Romana

Want to keep learning about Ancient History? Check out the references or read more of our articles.

References and Further Reading

Jeremy Black, The British and the Grand Tour (2010)

Gillian Darley, ‘Wonderful Things: The Experience of the Grand Tour.’ Perspecta vol. 41 (2008)

Edward Porges, ‘The Grand Tour Travel as an Educational Device 1600 – 1800’ Annals of Tourism Research (1981)

National Trust Article ‘What was the Grand Tour?’

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