Club Med

The gentlemen of the Grand Tour weren't just passionate about the art of the ancient world, they had themselves painted into the scenery. By Andrew Graham-Dixon
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As painted by Pompeo Batoni, circa 1764, Thomas Dundas, later First Baron Dundas is the very model of the Georgian gentleman abroad. Resplendent in his suit of red velvet trimmed with gold lace, this charmingly complacent young man is enjoying the company of statues. He stands before a swooning stone goddess (the Vatican Ariadne, to be precise) in whose direction he gesticulates as if to insist that none save one as fair as she shall ever capture his heart. In the background, a marble Laocoon writhes in sympathetic agony while the Apollo Belvedere remains indifferent.

The 18th-century passion for antique art, to which Batoni's portraiture remains such an eloquent memorial, was tinged by superb presumption. The travelling aristocrats of the Georgian period, Grand Tourists as they soon became known, styled themselves the moral and spiritual successors to Athenian Greece and Republican Rome. Batoni became their favourite painter of souvenir portraiture because he made his sitters look as classically perfect as the works of Greco-Roman art with which they felt such an affinity. In the case of young Dundas, the artist cleverly arranged the sitter's limbs so that he himself resembles a modern, clothed version of the Apollo Belvedere behind him. Such effortless elegance, this visual rhyme declares, such nearly divine grace!

Batoni's talent for the flattery of fops is, as might be expected, amply demonstrated in "Grand Tour: the Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century" at the Tate Gallery. This turns out to be a capacious and extremely diverting rag-bag of an exhibition. Less art historical than anthropological in intent, it is a study of the customs, morals and interests of a long-extinct wandering tribe - that nomadic group of kings, queens, aristocrats, connoisseurs, dilettanti, cognoscenti, Weimar Humanists, philosophes, historians, artists, architects and assorted hangers-on who once so Grandly Toured through Italy. In the spirit of mingled humility and self-satisfaction, they came to pay tribute to the origins of their own noble, Enlightened society. As Dr Johnson expressed it: "All our religion, all our arts, almost all that sets us above savages, has come from the shores of the Mediterranean"; so to visit the font of Western civilisation was "the grand object of travelling".

Romantic reverie aroused by past grandeur was one of the obligatory states that the Grand Tourist was to induce in himself. Wandering among the ruins of once Imperial Rome, he was required to succumb to such sensitive awe as Edward Gibbon felt when he trod with lofty step the ruins of the Forum: "Each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present to my eye." One of the tasks that fell to the painter was that of providing visual documents of precisely such ennobling mental activity. The galleries of the Tate are thronged with somewhat self-consciously high-minded musers posed among broken statues and pediments. Goethe sat for a celebrated instance of this genre of portraiture. "I am to be portrayed," he noted drily in his journal, "life-size, as a traveller, wrapped in a white cloak, sitting on a fallen obelisk in the open air, looking out over the ruins of the Campagna of Rome in the background." Goethe's white cloak, draped over his body in heavy folds, makes him, too, look like something of a relic: a statue among statues.

Pictures of other people feeling things are always at a distance from the emotions they relate. A genuine sense of rapture before the relics of the classical world is more likely to survive in artists' sketches of what they themselves have seen. The exhibition contains, among other things, an inordinately beautiful Fragonard red-chalk-and-pencil drawing of the Temple of the Sibyl in Tivoli, overgrown with trees of such delicately transcribed foliage that their branches resemble feathery plumes of smoke; and a watercolour by John Robert Cozens in which the Colosseum, etched against violet dusk, rising out of a fanciful wilderness, suddenly and improbably seems quite fresh - as if seen for the first time, like a sudden revelation of the might of dead civilisations, stumbled upon in the middle of nowhere. Numerous examples of Giambattista Piranesi's talent for enlarging on the awesome aspect of ruins are also present.

In their more highly finished works, artists serving the Grand Tourist's taste for topographical mementoes could generally be counted upon to descend to what was expected of them. Canaletto, working in Venice, was swiftly reduced by demand to the practice of turning out Canalettos. Painters of Naples commonly went in for fashionably sublime, imaginary scenes of Vesuvius erupting. A remarkably theatrical specimen of the latter genre is Pierre-Jacques Volaire's very large, highly explosive and thoroughly absurd Eruption of Vesuvius by Moonlight, in which a pair of frock-coated gentlemen survey uncharacteristically well-behaved rivers of lava from an improbably convenient vantage point with impossible impunity.

It may have been in defiance of such dramatic predictabilities that Thomas Jones, one of the greatest Welsh painters - and still, despite the eloquence of his chief supporter, the late Lawrence Gowing, one of the least well-known masters of 18th-century British art - made his great moral and perceptual leap towards a new, startlingly informal realism. Jones was the most original of all Grand Tour artists to visit Naples, because he painted what no one else dreamt was worthy of record: unglamorous buildings, to be found on no itinerary, seen usually from the back; anonymous expanses of wall punctuated by windows that hint at the unknown lives of ordinary others; a line of laundry hung out to dry. There is great tenderness, slight melancholy and a Franciscan love for unattended humble things in his art. Two fine examples are included in this show, but the Tate surely owes the artist an exhibition of his own work and nothing but.

Italy intimidated just as many artists as it provoked to greatness, and many succumbed not unnaturally to crises of self-confidence. Working for patrons obsessed, as most Grand Tourists were, by the pre-eminence of the dead, this is not surprising. The anxious self-portrait on classic ground developed into one of the more intriguing sub-genres practised by painters living in Rome as the 18th century wore on. It is a shame that this exhibition could not include Henry Fuseli's spiritedly melodramatic demonstration of Sturm und Drang angst, The Artist Overwhelmed by the Magnitude of Fragments from the Antique - a drawing in which we see a painter, either Fuseli himself or some alter ego, swooning in dejection across the gigantic marble hand of Constantine in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museum. But space has been found for Anton Raphael Mengs's appallingly, involuntarily frank portrait of himself seeing through his own neo-classic pretensions (he sweatily points to a drawing of Perseus and Andromeda inspired by a Roman frieze on the easel before him, but he is a man visibly uncertain of his own capacity to live up to Winckelmann's advance billing of him as the new Phidias); and, too, for James Barry's brilliantly nervy Self-Portrait with James Paine and Dominique Lefevre before the Belvedere Torso.

Barry was an anxious, voluble and extremely volatile Irishman, ultimately to be consumed by paranoia, an irrational hatred of Sir Joshua Reynolds and his desire to reincarnate, in his own person, the lost classic traditions of Grecian art. As a self-portraitist he achieved brilliance. The picture chosen for this show was meant, presumably, as a demonstration of the admiration felt by the painter and his friends for antique art, but its effect is much more sinister and marvellous. Barry turns from the Belvedere Torso to face us. He seems pallid, and shocked by what he has seen, as if turning not from a masterpiece but from Medusa. His friends, behind him, are even paler ghosts, like bas-reliefs. They have been turned to stone by the genius of the past, and Barry is turning. Classic art petrified so many of the artists who loved it during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The contrast between flesh and stone is everywhere in Grand Tour portraiture because the essence of the Grand Tour itself was the meeting of the living and the dead, the present and the past. Men and women are depicted standing next to statues; pointing at them; discussing them, coolly or with animation; laying their hands upon them. How intimately the Grand Tourist treated that which he valued. The "Do Not Touch" ethic of today would have been an anathema to him.

Johann Zoffany's rarely exhibited picture from the Queen's collection, The Tribuna of the Uffizi, is one of the most remarkable 18th-century paintings of men looking at art. We see a room crowded with masterpieces of all eras which has been further crowded by a disparate gaggle of British connoisseurs gesticulating, staring, busily comparing work with work and discussing their conclusions. Painted between 1772 and 1779, it is a work in which may be discerned both the dawn of the modern museum and the origins of the discipline of art history. Men such as these, so clearly besotted with the notion of connoisseurial expertise, would encourage the establishment of those taxonomic and genealogical procedures by which later generations of art historians would attempt to reduce the chaos of the world's art to order.

But Zoffany saw more besides in the 18th-century connoisseur. In the faces of some of these men standing around in an art gallery it is possible to detect a raptness of attention that is more than mere attention - a real and perhaps even dangerous passion. It is as if statues and paintings have become actual, to some of these gazing connoisseurs, as people of real flesh and blood (an effect also hinted at by Zoffany in the way he subtly elides the real and the represented, in his painted art gallery, within a single continuum of illusion). The Grand Tourist communed with classic art, wanted to become one with it, to step inside the painting or warm the statue, as Pygmalion did, into life. In classic art he found not only interest and education, but other ways of dreaming and beingn

'Grand Tour' is at the Tate Gallery, London SW1 (0171-887 8000) to 5 Jan 1997