A Caprice Landscape with Ruins, in the style of Bernardo Bellotto, 1740-1800, oil on canvas (National Gallery, London, NG 135)
When reading about the eighteenth century and the treasures that came into the country house, it might seem a little bit like only young men were travelling to the continent to undertake the rite of passage that was the Grand Tour. Too often is the Grand Tour defined in traditional terms of being the preserve of the young elite white male, but plenty of recent research is aiming to change that and open up understandings of eighteenth century travel. For the focus of this blog post, women were certainly participants in this cultural phenomenon, also taking to the continent to go beyond their own worlds, travelling to places they had read and heard about. What is even more interesting is what women thought of the typical Grand Tourist during the eighteenth century.
What was the Grand Tour? It was very much the eighteenth century version of a gap year. In the traditional definition, young men would travel to continental Europe, usually accompanied by a tutor, travel around various cultural centres to see for themselves the sights, collections and antiquities unearthed, live and breathe the history of the places they had learned about, and gain more skill in speaking the language. Often it also meant lots of drinking, gambling and buying huge amounts of things to ship back to the country seat in Britain. However, whole families would take to the continent, spouses would go together after marrying, women could travel together. I’ve previously discussed the love story of Sir Rowland Winn and Sabine D’Hervart, of Nostell Priory, which was very much a Grand Tour fairy tale – find that here.
For my recent research, I’ve been reading female accounts of and correspondence discussing travel, and one of the things that struck me was some of the less than complimentary descriptions of the stereotypical Grand Tourist – young, male, rich – and I thought it would be interesting to share them here.
First, it might be worth mentioning the value women found in travel. Frances Thynne, Countess of Hertford, wrote to her friend, Henrietta Fermor, Countess of Pomfret, on October 23rd 1740 of the importance of travelling in broadening peoples’ horizons and encouraging an interest in the world around them – arguments that we would definitely still use today in favour of travelling! Frances wrote:
“…besides a variety of objects and knowledge which it furnishes to people of any curiosity, I think it useful in enlarging the mind, and aspiring it with a more universal benevolence to its fellow creatures. Those persons who live only within the circle of a few friends and acquaintance, are apt to entertain narrow opinions, and unjust prejudices against whatever is out of the sphere of their knowledge. I have always thought that truth, good-sense, and reason, are much in the same places.”
Henrietta, who was enthusiastically travelling round Europe with her family, on a trip that would last three years, was obviously in firm agreement.
Where it gets juicy and, obviously, more entertaining, is when these women start to talk about those archetypal tourists who they clearly believe the experience is wasted on. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was especially disparaging of these types of tourists. In a particularly scathing description – which it is worth noting was left out of her famous Turkish Embassy Letters – she went as far to call them “the worst company in the world” and “the greatest blockheads in nature”. Even worse than this, in her opinion, was their activity when they were abroad:
“their whole business abroad (as far as I can perceive) being to buy new cloaths, in which they shine in some obscure coffee-house, where they are sure of meeting only one another; and after the important conquest of some waiting gentlewoman of an opera Queen … return to England excellent judges of men and manners.”
It was not only Lady Mary who couldn’t stand them and their intentions for travel. Frances Thynne was exactly the same in her opinion – they were not worthy of the opportunities travel offered to them, squandering them for debauchery and drinking. On May 21st 1740, she wrote:
“For most of our travelling youth neither improve themselves, nor credit their country. This, I believe, is often owing to the strange creatures that are made their governors, but as often to the strange creatures that are to be governed. Travelling is certainly carried a great deal too far amongst the English: for, although nothing can be more improper where those things are wanting; and the fortune which should be increasing in business, is often decreasing in dress, equipage, and sometimes in worse things.”
So – these women definitely were not a fan of the young men traversing the continent for their own pleasure. It’s been really interesting reading their opinions on travel and travellers during an age when it was seen as increasingly important to experience these things for oneself – I’ll update you more on what these women experienced within their own travels abroad soon!
 Anon, (ed.), Correspondence between Frances, countess of Hartford and Henrietta Louisa, countess of Pomfret, Vol.II (1805), 172-173.
 Quoted in K. Turner, British Travel Writers in Europe 1750-1800: Authorship, gender and national identity (2001), 129.
 Anon, (ed.), Correspondence between Frances, countess of Hartford and Henrietta Louisa, countess of Pomfret, Vol.II (1805), 6.