Exhibitions: The pleasures of the flash

The 18th-century Grand Tour took English aristocrats to Italy, and helped establish country-house taste. Should we be celebrating?
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The Independent Culture
I find the Tate Gallery's "Grand Tour" exhibition dry and uninspiring, though there's no doubt that it covers one side of its subject in a thorough way. The show's subtitle is "The Lure of Italy in the 18th Century", and although there are significant contributions from French and German artists who crossed the Alps before the Napoleonic wars, this is really a show about English connoisseurs, and therefore about the kind of taste that fashioned the decoration of country houses in the days when art collecting was confined to people who possessed such properties.

These were also the men who had the wealth to send their sons (never daughters) to Italy to look at classical antiquities, Renaissance art and the topography of the Roman campagna. Such people went to Italy and made lots of purchases, bringing paintings, sculpture and other artefacts back to England. As is seldom remarked, least of all in the present exhibition, this was the only time and the only sphere in which our landed aristocracy made any contribution to visual culture. Not that they did so for the good of culture in general. They were interested in their own houses. To this day, country-house art is stuck in the late 18th century. There was little significant collecting by the aristocracy in the 19th century, and none at all in the 20th.

For such reasons the Tate exhibition is extremely old fashioned. It could be compared to "Italian Art and Britain", a significant event at the Royal Academy in 1960. The subject matter of "Grand Tour" is pretty much the same, except that the attitude is far more documentary. It's as though the whole exhibition has been designed as an illustration of its catalogue. All the accompanying scholarship is excellent, but the work on the walls is almost entirely of the second rank. One has the impression that the people who devised the show are simply not interested in the larger spirit of art - just like the rich travellers whose collecting activities are so respectfully examined.

One looks in vain for the kind of painting that stirs emotions or tells us something new about the world. Alas, wonderful artists are few. There's a fine Claude, but he's the last artist to tell us anything new, and really one looks at him with some weariness. The interest provided by Canaletto is soon exhausted. Vernet, Bellotto, Piranesi and many others are revealed as trademark artists. The Turner is a Turner. Joseph Wright of Derby is not at his best in the view of Vesuvius in Eruption. This is obviously a routine work, for it was painted in England and is one of no fewer than 30 of his paintings of the same subject.

Repetitions and cliche are obvious components of art associated with the Grand Tour, a problem unnoticed by the catalogue essays. I had more pleasure from Bruce Redford's new book, Venice and the Grand Tour (Yale, pounds 20), which draws attention to the individual art of Rosalba Carriera. Her portrait of Walpole in the Tate show is quite lovely, and surely her use of pastel in formal portraiture (a technique she pioneered) is unequalled in later art, even by her unacknowledged follower Renoir. Redford remarks that Venice itself is never shown in her pictures of the many travellers who sat for her. Instead, he winningly says, qualities of the city are suggested within the portrait itself - qualities of "voluptuous refinement and eternal play".

Voluptuaries could be satisfied elsewhere in Italy, and there's plenty of evidence that the Grand Tour helped sprigs of the aristocracy to sample pleasures that were forbidden at home. Obviously this was a good thing (and would have been even better if extended to people who lived in cottages) but I don't see that it entered art. This exhibition isn't sensuous enough. I want to see displays of lewd dancing, nudes, fruit, friends and relaxed interiors. Instead, we are asked to admire, for instance, Nathaniel Dance's preposterous James Grant, John Mytton, Thomas Robinson and Thomas Wynn in front of the Colosseum in Rome, all of them posing as intellectuals. I'm sure they weren't, and greatly doubt whether the Grand Tour contributed much to the development of English thought. What good books by aristocrats came out of it? Principally, Byron's poetry; but he was of a later generation, and used his foreign experiences to help him with self-portraiture of a superbly knowing but unintellectual character.

Disappointing though the exhibition is, there are half a dozen or more works which grip rather than invite one's attention. Foremost among them are the sculptures, or rather statuary. Charles Townley's purchase (in 1780) of a second century AD Sphinx was a clever acquisition. It now belongs to the British Museum, so is familiar. Less well-known are the paintings of Italy by Thomas Jones (1742-1803). He was a pupil of Richard Wilson's, but had a better sense that you can make good painting from what you see in front of you. Jones might count as one of the best pre-20th-century Welsh artists (though I agree there's not much competition for this honour).

"Grand Tour" is approached through a gallery of modern sculpture. Of most interest in this new display are the loans, which include a great early (1962) Anthony Caro, and American sculptures lent by Barnett Newman's widow, Annalee, and David Smith's daughters Candida and Rebecca. Here is a truly moving mini-exhibition, one which points out that "Grand Tour" isn't moving at all.

! 'Grand Tour': Tate, SW1 (0171 837 8000), to 5 Jan.