The Grand Tour enjoyed a long heyday from the seventeenth to the end of the eighteen centuries, continuing into the nineteenth century in a modified form. Many Irish gentry and aristocrats undertook the Tour. Here we look at the origins of the Grand Tour and its effects on issues of style and taste in Irish art collections, homes, gardens and demesnes, particularly in relation to Richard White, Lord Berehaven, the 2nd Earl of Bantry who was an avid Grand Tourist, undertaking the Tour several times and travelling beyond its usual limits to visit places as far afield as Russia and Poland.

The Grand Tour has its origins in the Classical education enjoyed by young aristocratic males. Steeped in stories, myths and the histories of ancient Greece and Rome these young men sought to refine their learning by experiencing the actual sites of antiquity, many of which were either being newly unearthed, or further excavated, bringing to light the outstanding works of art of the ancients.  Alongside this the great flourishing of artistic activity throughout Italy, that we now call the Renaissance, increased the appetite for travel amongst this group of young men who wished to experience these works that would become the masterpieces of the art world. 

A tour could last anything from a few months to several years, during this time the tourist would travel with a guide who was a source of learned information, well-versed in the finer points of all that the tourist would see.  Experience was the raison d’etre of the grand tourist, ever since John Locke’s (1632-1704)Essay on Human Understanding (1690) proclaimed that knowledge came entirely from human senses.  As a result it came to be believed that sources of knowledge could become used up, therefore the opportunity to engage with new experiences was central to forming an educated mind, from whence comes the adage about travel broadening the mind.

Proceeding logically from this was the idea that the mind could not learn from what the senses did not experience, but even before Locke’s essay gave those of a restless nature permission for their wanderings, early travellers such as Thomas Coryate (1577-1617) were publishing not just histories of their travels, but prefacing them with long justifications of the value and educational opportunities afforded by travel, this was the famous Coryat’s Crudities published in 1611.

A great art market built up around the grand tourists, catering for every taste, if not every budget, with many Irish artists making their pilgrimage to, what was at this time, the centre of the art world. They went seeking knowledge, fame and fortune, and as much as this tour was a grand finishing school for the young aristocrat, so was it also for the young artist.  An Irish artist that Lord Berehaven patronised during one of his visits was John Hogan (1800-1858) who produced portrait busts of Berehaven and wife, Lady Mary.

However, by the end of the eighteenth century the Grand Tour was going into decline; its demographic had changed to include noble women and even whole families, a change that was lamented by some, who felt the loss of exclusivity. The Grand Tour continues to be of interest to scholars today, but it also still retains its allure to modern travellers, although they may not have the luxury of spending months and years travelling as did those they seek to emulate.

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