From the early 17th century young members of the aristocracy embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe. They were in search of art, culture and the very roots of Western civilisation. Their travels could last for years and they were usually accompanied by an entourage including an artist who acted as the recorder of their exotic journeys.
Many of these young people had almost limitless wealth and were voracious collectors of artworks, sculptures and antiquities. These were shipped back during the tour and the now priceless treasures enhance many of Britain's art galleries and stately homes.
For the second year 'The Grand Tour UK' has been devised across Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire featuring Nottingham Contemporary, Chatsworth House, Derby Museums and the Harley Gallery at Welbeck. They have joined forces to give you the opportunity to become a modern day Grand Tourist.
The Harley Gallery
My journey started on the Welbeck Estate at the Harley Gallery, here two contemporary artists, Rose English and Sir Peter Blake have exhibitions that mirror aspects of the Grand Tour. Rose is showing costumes and a video of Quadrille, a performance by dancers wearing horses hooves and tails as they emulate dressage moves. This work reflects the strong equine connection with the estate, whose owner William Cavendish brought back elements of dressage from Europe.
The second exhibition shows the art of collage maker extraordinaire, Sir Peter Blake. Best know as designer of the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album sleeve he has a lifetime of other works. My favourite, the 'Butterfly Man' series features an enigmatic blue figure in world famous locations surrounded by butterflies. Now aged 83 Sir Peter is still energetic and imaginative and the exhibition gave an intriguing insight into his career.
The icing on the cake at Welbeck was the Portland Collection amassed by the Cavendish-Bentinck family over 400 years. A new purpose built gallery now exhibits the art works, silverware and furniture. The building uses the walls of the 'Tan Gallops' originally a quarter mile long indoor horse training track. The collection is stunning, I particularly liked the silverware and Van Dyck portraits
Next stop was the 'Palace of the Peak', the incomparable Chatsworth House showing 'A Grand Tour of the Devonshire Collection' celebrating the Grand Tour through the eyes of the Devonshire families' own travellers. Taking the tour was a thrill, two works by Canaletto and the sheer flawless beauty of Domenichino's 'Madonna delle Rose' was tear inducing.
There was private correspondence and ledgers showing expenditure, one detailing 800 plus shipments of artefacts sent back to England. Sketches by Inigo Jones and a series, Rome in Ruins, drawings by Flemish painter Sebastian Vrancx are other works previously unseen. The current Duke has been a generous supporter of The Grand Tour UK and helped to make it a real cultural odyssey.
The Derwent Valley and Derby
I headed down the picturesque Derwent Valley, it was here on the banks of the river that Sir Richard Arkwright pioneered the industrialisation of spinning and weaving. Arriving in Derby I found a city undergoing a cultural renaissance. Home to Royal Crown Derby porcelain the city is also the location of the third Grand Tour destination.
The Derby Museums' are staging an exhibition, 'Joseph Wright and the Lure of Italy', showing the Grand Tours of the 18th and 19th centuries through the experiences of Derbyshire voyagers, including Wright himself. Treasures from some of the county's greatest houses have been lent for this special show to sit alongside Derby Museums' own rich collection. Some of these items are on public show for the first time.
Part of Wright's lure was Mount Vesuvius, he painted it more than 30 times and we are treated to a view of it in full eruption. He was a master of light and this was well illustrated by his delicately painted Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno by moonlight. Also an eye-catcher was an amusing satirical work by Thomas Patch of Lord William Cavendish.
My final destination was Nottingham Contemporary where Turner Prize winner Simon Starling is exhibiting a number of his works. One of the most relevant juxtaposes Joseph Wright's painting The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus against a specially commissioned piece that Starling has designed. He extracted magnesium from the waters of the Dead Sea and made the metal into a lightweight canoe. His next task is to paddle it across the stretch of water from Israel to Jordan. This project has touch points with the Grand Tour, many of the travellers visited the Levant and Simon's expedition has a real element of danger attached to it as did the 17th century journeys.
Although The Grand Tour UK has its focus on the journeys of aristocrats and the treasures they collected they were accompanied by tutors and even horticulturists who all brought back new ideas. Within a century of the first Grand Tours the Age of Enlightenment dawned, how much of that thinking was drawn from European culture? We hear of philosopher Thomas Hobbes and garden designer Joseph Paxton going on Grand Tours with the Devonshires, it must have changed their world view as this modern day tour will affect your own.
My Grand Tour was over and it had been a fascinating cultural experience. It was a privilege to see so many art works being exhibited for the first time, to get an insight into the personal lives of the travellers and to appreciate just how much benefit England had accrued from these adventurous young people.
The Grand Tour UK - www.thegrandtour.uk.com
Nottingham Contemporary - www.nottinghamcontemporary.org
Chatsworth House - www.chatsworth.org
Derby Museums - www.derbymuseums.org
The Harley Gallery - www.harleygallery.co.uk
Experience Nottinghamshire - www.experiencenottinghamshire.com
Visit Peak District and Derbyshire - www.visitpeakdistrict.com
VisitEngland - www.visitengland.com