The Grand Tour and the Global Landscape

Tim Barringer Art, Magazine

Fig. 1. Rome from the Villa Madama by Richard Wilson (1714–1782), 1753. Oil on canvas, 37 5/8 by 52 ¼ inches. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

During the eighteenth century, wealthy and privileged Britons, such as the group portrayed by Nathaniel Dance c. 1760 (Fig. 2), hastened south, to drink at the font of European civilization in Rome amid the ruins of an earlier empire, and to absorb the classics in literature and art. Habits of viewing the landscape that derived ultimately from the Grand Tour determined the ways British artists and travelers framed their visual experience of the rest of the world. The Grand Tour thus lies in the ancestry of what I will call “global landscape,” the art of the British Empire. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, British artists traveled south—first to Italy, and then to the Pacific, and then across the globe. Wherever they went, they envisaged the world according to preexisting visual formulae, often struggling to fit what was before their eyes into the established frameworks of the picturesque, the sublime, and the panoramic.

Fig. 2. James Grant of Grant, John Mytton, the Hon. Thomas Robinson, and Thomas Wynne by Nathaniel Dance (1735–1811), c. 1760. Oil on canvas, 38 5/8 by 48 ¾ inches. Yale Center for British Art, Mellon Collection.

Italian scenery, as envisaged by seventeenth century French painters based in Rome, most notably Claude Lorrain, provided a repertoire of types, a series of forms and effects, that British artists would carry throughout the world. Landscapes, from Scotland and Ireland to Tasmania and Bengal, were reformulated in representation, and sometimes even in reality, to conform to a visual ideal redolent of Rome and the Grand Tour. This act was a political one, for ultimately these habits of looking were rooted in the power that came from the ownership of land, whether on the English estate, or in colonial territories acquired through violence or by treaty. By the time the French Revolution brought the Grand Tour to a close, the country estate had begun to yield its influence to the factories and counting houses of global capitalism. But, by then the British Empire had carried the visual legacy of the Grand Tour across the globe.

Fig. 3. Pastoral Landscape by Claude Lorrain (1604–1682), 1648. Oil on copper, 15 ½ by 21 inches. Yale University Art Gallery.

Grand Tourists often returned home with newly acquired (often restored; sometimes completely fake) classical statues, destined to be proudly displayed in galleries specially constructed in the Palladian style. They also purchased Old Master paintings, and, while historical and religious subjects were highly esteemed, landscapes occupied a special place. Traditionally low in the hierarchy of genres, landscape painting was elevated by the fact that its most ambitious exponents, considered to be founding fathers of a great European tradition, were Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, who had also resided in Rome in the mid-seventeenth century. Works by Claude, such as Pastoral Landscape (Fig. 3), presented the ultimate model of refinement, offering an idealized rendering of the landscape that was notable for an elegant balancing of forms and many incidental delights for the eye. A framing device, or repoussoir— often a tree bending gracefully into the composition— acts to open the curtain on a rhythmic series of receding planes, carefully arranged in bands of light and dark, until the eye picks up the cool tones of a water feature, a lake or river, that leads us from lush greens through to the misty blue of the horizon. Architectural features suggest ruins in the countryside near Rome—the campagna—but the topography is imaginary. If there is an ostensible figurative subject, it is subordinated to the scenery. In his Fourth Discourse, presented to the students of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1771, Sir Joshua Reynolds noted that Claude “was convinced that taking nature as he found it seldom produced beauty. His pictures are a composition of the various draughts which he has previously made from various beautiful scenes and prospects.”1 Reynolds contrasted the Claudean landscape favorably with that of Dutch painters, whose attention to quotidian detail he believed to be vulgar. The contest between the everyday and the ideal, of observed detail versus inherited form, would remain a fault line in global landscape painting.

Fig. 4. A sheet from Italian Sketchbook by Wilson, 1754. Graphite with white and black chalk on paper, bound in vellum, 11 1/8 by 8 ¼ inches. Yale Center for British Art, Mellon Collection.

For the Grand Tourist, not only did Claude’s work offer a memento of the Roman campagna, it also embodied an aesthetic model of an orderly and unchanging landscape that could suggest the eternal continuance of a political status quo, a world in which everyone knew his or her proper place—just as the foreground, middle ground, and background remained forever separate and distinct in Claude’s paintings. His works exude a sense of timeless stasis, a withdrawal into pastoral tranquility from the turbulence of everyday life. Such images of natural hierarchy gain special currency at historical moments when social realities are in flux, as in the later eighteenth century, which saw a move toward urbanization and industrialization, and the emergence of revolutionary political thought.

At the time British aristocrats were most active acquiring the works of Claude, around 1750, a new term of aesthetic approbation entered common currency. That term was “picturesque,” initially meaning simply “like a picture.” Tourists brought with them a drawing master and learned to perceive the Roman campagna through the eyes of Claude.

Fig. 5. The Dilettanti Society by Charles Turner (1774–1857) after Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792). Inscribed “Sir Joshua Reynolds Pinxt./ Lord Mulgrave. Lord Dundas. Lord Seaforth. Honble. Charles Greville. Charles Crowle Esqr. Duke of Leeds. Sir Joseph Banks./ Turner Sculp.” at bottom. Mezzotint on cream wove paper, 27 5/8 by 20 1/8 inches. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund.

The ink drawings of Heneage Finch, the Fourth Earl of Aylesford, made on his Grand Tour, demonstrate that a gifted amateur could absorb the Claudean mode (Fig. 6).

Undoubtedly the key figure in the British reception of Claude, and a crucial point of reference for global landscape, is Richard Wilson, who was in Rome between 1751 and 1757. He abandoned a career as a portraitist and developed an austere and dignified form of landscape painting profoundly influenced by Claude, as Rome from the Villa Madama, painted in 1753, attests (Fig. 1). We can follow the actions of Wilson’s hand and eye on site in a sketchbook, now at Yale, from 1754, in which architectural details are carefully inscribed and striking natural forms are boldly noted—with the figure of an artist at work from nature (Fig. 4).

Fig. 6. Sculptured Tomb in a Landscape by Heneage Finch, Fourth Earl of Aylesford (1751–1812). Graphite, watercolor, and ink on paper, 4 1/8 by 6 inches. Tate Britain, London.

But how did the picturesque go global? The linchpin here is Sir Joseph Banks, whom we encounter with the red cloak, or toga, over his shoulder that identifies him as host of a meeting of the Society of Dilettanti, in one of Reynolds’s paired group portraits (see Fig. 5). For this gathering of educated amateurs and voluptuaries, an interest in classical antiquity was de rigeur. A slightly earlier portrait from 1771–1773, also by Reynolds, gives a firmer sense of Banks’s identity (Fig. 7). He seems to leap up from his chair, a man of action: among emblems of learning around him is a letter inscribed “Cras Ingens iterabimus aequor” from Horace: “Tomorrow we will sail the vast deep again.” After inheriting a large fortune in 1764, Banks, already a considerable expert in botany, became a patron of scientific pursuits. He rejected the standard Grand Tour of Italy with the famous declaration, “Every blockhead does that; My grand tour shall be one round the whole globe.”2 In 1766 he traveled to Newfoundland, and, on hearing that the Royal Society was sponsoring a voyage to the South Seas in 1768, to be led by Captain James Cook, he applied to join it. Cook was a Yorkshireman of much more modest social origins, whose harsher visage betokening great practical experience is captured in Nathaniel Dance’s portrait (Fig. 10).

Fig. 7. Sir Joseph Banks, Bt by Reynolds, 1771– 1773. Oil on canvas, 50 by 40 inches. National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.

In his portrait of Banks, Reynolds was unable to come up with a compelling visual signifier of global landscape, offering only an inchoate gray maritime smudge. But the scientist himself understood the value of visual evidence alongside specimens, and owing to him, the crew of Endeavour included a substantial retinue including artists Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Buchan. A workmanlike young landscape painter, Buchan made some sketches of contact with indigenous people in Tierra del Fuego in January 1769, in which landscape functions as a backdrop for ethnographic detail (Fig. 9). Alas, Buchan died before he could produce more ambitious works, and Parkinson focused for the most part on ethnography and natural history, Banks’s primary interest.

Fig. 8. A View of Matavai Bay in the Island of Otaheite [Tahiti] by William Hodges (1744– 1797), 1776. Signed and dated “Hodges 1776” at lower left. Oil on canvas, 36 by 54 inches. Yale Center for British Art, Mellon Collection.

William Hodges, an accomplished student of Wilson, was offered the post of “landskip artist” on Captain Cook’s second voyage, 1772–1775, which renewed the search for the elusive Southern Continent. Geoff Quilley has identified Hodges as the pre-eminent artist of empire, who supported and embodied the Enlightenment aspiration to observe, document, and delineate the world, and to create art from nature, while also participating in the militarized imposition of colonial control for the purposes of extraction of value. Hodges made remarkable studies in various mediums—notably pen and ink—which served the utilitarian purpose of recording the topographical and societal novelties that the mission encountered.

Fig. 9. A view of the Endeavour’s watering place in the Bay of Good Success, Tierra del Furgo, with natives. January 1769 by Alexander Buchan (d. 1769), 1769. Gouache on vellum, 13 3/8 by 9 ¾ inches. British Library; photograph courtesy of the British Library Board via Flickr.

At the Royal Academy in 1776, Hodges displayed the ardently Claudean View of Matavai Bay in the Island of Otaheite (Fig. 8). The cornucopia of tropical botany is on display, with rich and unfamiliar fruits and trees. Hodges carefully details raw materials and handcrafted manufactures, all of them seeming to call out for commercial exploitation. The painting offered an admiring chronicle of Tahitian society, demonstrating military and maritime prowess, as well as mysterious cultural and religious features such as the high priest’s ceremonial regalia, which was much discussed in London. But it was in the recumbent figures in the foreground that Hodges made his most compelling allusion to the other South, that of the Grand Tour, for the formidable figures of reclining Polynesian men are clearly modeled on the classical river god statues that many a tourist had sketched in Rome. With the mast of a Tahitian vessel standing in for the repoussoir tree, and the stages of Claudean recession through atmospheric perspective in place, this work fuses the global South with the European South, an aristocratic vision of landscape that imagines Tahiti as a landscape garden replete with visual pleasures.

But if Tahiti was an arcadia, a Garden of Eden as Hodges suggests, his presence, and that of other European travelers, was that of the serpent, marking inevitable doom for the traditional societies that the Enlightenment found so fascinating. Another version of the painting, this time showing Cook’s vessels Resolution and Adventure, was given to the Admiralty in 1776 (Fig. 11). Here Hodges more honestly presents the scene as a contact zone, an area in which disparate regions and technologies— different worlds, with radically unequal military and technological resources at their disposal— collide.

Fig. 10. Captain James Cook, 1728–79 by Dance, 1776. Oil on canvas, 50 by 40 inches. Royal Museums Greenwich, National Maritime Museum, London.

Hodges’s fusion of the European South with the South Seas might make a suitable conclusion, as an end to the Grand Tour and the beginning of the assertion of a world order in which any landscape may be brought under the authority of the Claudean picturesque with its seductive mixing of ideas of pleasure, power, ownership, and the extraction of value. But as Hodges’s works predict, the interest of the global powers in the South Pacific did not end with mere exploration; Cook’s mission was not, ultimately, only a Grand Tour. Rather it was the precursor of a territorial campaign of global magnitude, which began with the founding of the prison colony at Botany Bay in 1788.

It is worth invoking William Blake’s angry annotations to Reynolds’s Discourses, whose approbation of Claudean landscape I have already cited. “The foundation of empire is art and science. Remove them or degrade them, and the empire is no more. Empire follows art and not vice versa as Englishmen suppose.”3 Blake was, as usual, right: Cook’s voyages, directly linked through Banks and the Dilettanti to Reynolds, introduced both science and European art to the South Pacific. When empire followed, it took the form of prison colonies, invasion, and the brutal dispossession of aboriginal lands. Despite this harshest of foundations, however, the global landscape lived on. Generations of Australian landscape painters, from John Glover in the 1830s well into the twentieth century, would participate in the traditions of global landscape, celebrating a mode of composition dating from the 1630s, which had become the visual currency of empire at the hands of Grand Tourists a century earlier.

Fig. 11. [A] view of Maitavie Bay, [in the island of] Otaheite [Tahiti] by Hodges, 1776. Oil on canvas, 54 by 76 inches. National Maritime Museum.

1Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, ed. Robert R. Wark (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), pp. 69–70. 2Quoted in John Gascoigne, Joseph Banks and the English Enlightenment: Useful Knowledge and Polite Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 61. 3William Blake, “Annotations to Reynolds’s Discourses,” in Reynolds, Discourses on Art, p. 285.

TIM BARRINGER is the Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art at Yale University.