What was the 'Grand Tour'?

A Gathering of Dilettanti around the Medici Venus by Thomas Patch

The term 'Grand Tour' was coined by the Catholic priest and travel writer Richard Lassels (c.1603-68), who used it in his influential guidebook The Voyage of Italty (published 1670) to describe young lords travelling abroad to learn about art, architecture and antiquity.

During the eighteenth century in particular, the tour became a highly desirable way for aristrocrats and gentry acros Europe, and especially Britain, to polish off their education. Young men were exposed to Greek and Roman history, language and literature throughout school and university, and when they went abroad - usually chaperoned by a paid tutor, known as a 'cicerone' - this classical education was imaginatively played out before their very eyes.

The growth of the British Grand Tour was especially remarkable in the years 1764 to 1796 - a golden age in terms of the number of travellers, tourist-painters, excavations and export licenses released from Rome to British citizens - coinciding with a long period of peace and prosperity in Europe.

Increasing wealth, stability and political importance enabled more and more people to travel so while a typical Grand Tourist was likely to be a young British milord completing his education, prolonged trips were also undertaken by artists, designers, collectors, agents of the art trade, and large numbers of the educated public, including many women.

The Route

The traditional route of the Grand Tour involved arriving in Paris where tourists would bring or buy transport, and they would then cross the Alps carried by chair at Mont Cenis before moving on to Turin. Tourists would aim for famous festivals such as the Carnival in Venice or Holy Week in Rome. They would then make their way slowly through Lucca, Florence, Siena and Rome to Naples and then return north by revisiting Rome before heading to Venice through Loreto, Ancona and Ravenna. Tourists would leave Italy through Vicenza, Verona, Mantua, Bologna, Modena, Parma, Milan, Turin and Mont Cenis.

The 2nd Earl of Egremont

Portrait of Charles Wyndham, 2nd Earl of Egremont by William Hoare
Painting of Charles Wyndham, 2nd Earl of Egremont by William Hoare

We know from a series of letters written to his father that Charles Wyndham, 2nd Earl of Egremont (1710-63), left England in 1727 with his tutor, Mr. Campbell, first spending two years at an academy in Paris. In September 1729, he left for Lyons with Benjamin Bathurst. Having journeyed on to Turin in early November, the Earl attended a Ball given by the French ambassador to celebrate the birth of the Dauphin, and danced 'all night long' with the Princess Francavilla. He then travelled with his friend, the author George Lyttelton (1709-73), to Genoa at the end of the month, taking in both Milan and Padua on the way, before enjoying an extended stay in Venice alongside 'about thirty' other English tourists to see the Carnival. The Earl returned to Rome in Februrary 1730 before moving on to Naples and back to Rome and then on to Florence in mid-May. From there he made his way home in the company of Lyttelton.

His collection

Inspired by the classical art he had seen during his protracted European stay to establish his own collection, the 2nd Earl left Petworth with a material legacy of nearly 200 paintings and some 70 statues and busts. Assembled in the decade between 1750 and 1760, the marbles - mostly copies of Greek originals or Greco-Roman pieces - mainly came from the Earl's two agents in Rome.

The 3rd Earl of Egremont

Painting of George O'Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont

The 3rd Earl followed in his father's footsteps, and undertook not one but two Grand Tours of Europe between the years 1770 and 1774, visiting Dresden, Paris, Berlin, Prague and Vienna, as well as Venice. 

Like his father, he too was influenced by the art he saw while abroad and became a prodigious collector later in life, buying Old Masters and antique sculptures, as well as commissioning landscapes, subject pictures and portraits; between 1795 and 1837 he had added 263 pictures by 66 painters to the Petworth collection. It was from the late 1790s that he flourished as a patron and collector of British art.