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Collecting on the Grand Tour

Martin McIlroy (Head of the Works of Art Department) looks at the 'grand tour' that many young aristocrats and gentlemen engaged in from the end of 17th Century as an important part of their cultural education and the items that they might typically collect that now find their way into modern works of art auctions.

A bronze figure of Mercury (FS38/821).

A bronze figure of Mercury (FS38/821).

The idea of a Grand Tour was introduced to Europe by a 17th Century travel writer Richard Lassels and his guidebook 'The Voyage of Italy', which was published in 1670. It was the first guide for young gentlemen travelling abroad to immerse themselves in architecture, antiquity and art.

Particularly during the 18th century, it provided the opportunity for young aristocrats and gentry who had had a formal classical education in Latin and Greek, to absorb those past cultures. Their tours usually lasted for up to four years and included major European capitals but most importantly Italy.

A Grand Tour bronze of a Bacchanalian figure, possibly Dionysos (FS41/847).

A Grand Tour bronze of a Bacchanalian figure, possibly Dionysos (FS41/847).

Two Grand Tour bronzes: The Dancing Faun of Pompeii and Venus adjusting her sandal (FS36/782).

Two Grand Tour bronzes: The Dancing Faun of Pompeii and Venus adjusting her sandal (FS36/782).

After Giambologna, a pair of bronze figures Mercury and Fortuna (FS40/765).

After Giambologna, a pair of bronze figures Mercury and Fortuna (FS40/765).

Italian cities and towns included Turin, Lucca, Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice and Verona amongst others and, of course, Herculaneum and Pompeii where excavations had taken place since 1738. Here they would come under the influence of artists, designers, agents of the antiques trade and other well educated men and women. It was a time when wealthy aristocrats formed collections back in England. Paintings, statues, bronzes and other antiquities were exported from Rome back to the stately homes each vying to have the best collection.

Not only were Works of Art exported back to England but souvenirs of their travels and places where they stayed. Amongst the most popular items to be offered at auction are micro-mosaics, bronze and marble copies of ancient statues and busts, plaster gems and such like.

Micro-mosaics, formed from tiny pieces of glass (tesserae), frequently depicting views of Rome such as St Peter's Square, the Collosseum, the Pantheon and views of Pompeii, often set within black slate or marble. During this period, micro-mosaic jewellery became all the fashion and are still popular items for collectors today.

A grand Tour micro-mosaic brooch depicting St Peter’s Square, Rome (FS10/156).

A grand Tour micro-mosaic brooch depicting St Peter’s Square, Rome (FS10/156).

One of the best ways to remind the young gentlemen what they had seen was to buy collections of plaster gems, which depicted famous paintings, statues, historical figures or buildings. Moulded in either cameo or intaglio, each gem was surrounded by a gilt paper frame and numbered, a list was provided for all the gems, which would be fixed into three or more trays.

The most stunning pieces were large marble copies of antique statues, difficult to carry around so there was a whole industry of carvers and founders producing smaller copies as mementoes of people's visits to museums and galleries. Both in bronze and marble, they generally derived from Greek and Roman mythology all of which enforced the idea of a well-educated English aristocrat.

A grand Tour micro-mosaic brooch depicting St Peter’s Square, Rome (FS10/156).

A collection of Grand Tour plaster gems (FS41/821).

A set of Grand tour plaster gems (FS40/751).

A set of Grand tour plaster gems (FS40/751).

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  • Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood
  • Works of Art

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About the Author

Martin McIlroyMartin McIlroy
Collectables and Toys
Silver
Works of Art and Clocks

Martin McIlroy is the Head of the Works of Art and Silver Departments at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood.

Martin McIlroy was educated at Exeter School in Devon and took a gap year before continuing his education at Teacher Training College. He subsequently worked at The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter, cataloguing reserve collections before spending seven years working for a local auction room gaining further experience.

He joined the internationally renowned auction house Philips in 1982, where he catalogued sales in Exeter, Cornwall and London for sixteen years. He then joined Bearne's in 2000 to catalogue silver and works of art and subsequently became Head of these departments.

His favourite subject is bronze sculpture, church silver, toys and collectables.