During the 17th and 18th centuries, rich young Englishmen finished their education by going on The Grand Tour — an extended cultural and collecting trip through continental Europe. You can think of it as a ‘finishing school’ for the sons of the gentry.
In its heyday, completing a Grand Tour was essential to enter the upper ranks of British society. Rome and the historic cities of Italy were the principal draws. To be able to display ‘good taste’, an educated Georgian gentleman needed more than book learning. He had to show a thorough understanding of the classical principles of order and harmony.
To point him in the right direction — and try to keep him in order — he would be accompanied by a tutor. This was an older man, well-educated and knowledgeable in what was to be seen.
Politeness and Polish
‘Politeness’ was the hallmark of upper-class Georgian society, so acquiring it was important. The word meant far more than good manners. It included possessing the requisite knowledge and ‘polish’ to take a full part in polite conversation. By visiting the famous monuments and art works of antiquity, young men would be able to converse on suitable subjects. They would also gain a proper sense of what was best in matters of art, architecture and design. This was a world in which sound personal relationships brought patronage and promotion. If you could not maintain the right links and friendships, your future would be blighted. The great and mighty would bestow their favour elsewhere and your prospects of a suitable marriage would be sharply reduced.
Signs of Superiority
It’s worth remembering that, at root, ‘distinction’ means being set apart in some way — obviously not part of the common herd. At one time, aristocracy and gentry could set themselves apart by displays of martial prowess, like jousting. They also relied on the traditional belief of the church that God made them what they were. Like the Victorians, they thought “God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate” as the hymn has it. There was also a large enough financial gulf between them and the merchant classes for it to seem unbridgeable.
Fast forward to the eighteenth century. Few chances — or need — for the upper classes to show martial prowess. On the battlefield, a yokel with a musket would always be more deadly than a gentleman with a sword. The ‘middling sort’ were gaining wealth and with it confidence and influence.
Leisure: a New Source of Distinction
Inherited wealth wasn’t reliable any more. Agricultural markets fluctuated, taking rents up and down with them. Many a manufacturer or merchant had more money than the poorer members of the upper classes. What else did the upper classes have that others did not?
They had leisure.
The gentry owned land; they did not work for a living. They had time to do other things instead — like gain an expensive education in the Classics. Latin and Ancient Greek had no usefulness for business. They were used to display intellectual and cultural superiority. The same was true of other ‘academic’ subjects, from pure mathematics and philosophy to antiquarianism.
Young gentlemen acquired polish by foreign travel. They polished their fluency in French and maybe some other European languages. They learned to converse on the Classical principles of structure and balance in art and architecture. All were ‘useless’ for business or earning a living. All showed you belonged amongst the elite of society. From the Georgian urge to display distinction sprang the snobbish Victorian gentleman’s sneering contempt of ‘trade’.
Politeness was never a perfect tool. Most of the richest aristocrats actually made the bulk of their money — at arm’s length, naturally — from things like coal mining, canals or even slate. Appearance was what counted. You must look and sound as if you never needed to spare a thought for anything save developing and expressing your refinement. In an ordered and formal society, rules exist to keep the unwanted out, not to bind insiders beyond what was necessary.
The practice of ‘doing the Grand Tour’ flourished for around a century. Then the Napoleonic War intervened. The war made such travel impractical and undesirable. Too much continental, especially French, influence could be seen as unpatriotic. Worse, it began to be thought unmanly and effete. As the influence of evangelical forms of Christianity grew, the Catholic continent was seen as a place of loose morals. The canard that Catholics can do whatever they like, then wipe away the sin via confession, has long gripped the Protestant mind!
Of course, not every young man came home with greater refinement. For some, it was an opportunity to sow their wild oats well away from parental oversight. For others, the most lasting benefits were the friendships they made with fellow Grand Tourists along the way. For a few, it proved a chance to indulge, then perfect vices they didn’t know they had before they went. And, like tourists ever since, for most it provided an opportunity to gather all kinds of souvenirs.
The second William Windham of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk is a good example. He was away for four years and sowed his wild oats to the extent of costing his father £2000 to get him out of an engagement contracted in Geneva. He climbed in the Alps and indulged in rowdy amateur dramatics with other young men making the same trip. The friendships he formed then lasted the rest of his life. He increased his dedication to fashionable neo-classical taste to the extent of a major remodelling of Felbrigg Hall after his father’s death. He added books in French, Italian and German to his library, along with volumes of architectural drawings and plans. He also filled the walls of several rooms, plus the staircase hall, with the paintings he acquired along the way. Not the greatest art, but the best he could afford. It’s still there today.
The Mania for Collecting Art
Most of the ‘Grand Tourists’ brought back wagon-loads of artworks to embellish their houses. People at home wondered if anything would remain in the countries they passed through, since they bought so much. Collecting became a mania. Grand houses were built to hold the collections and serve as physical signs of their owners’ knowledge of the canons of refined taste.
Georgian gentlemen might gamble and drink their wealth away. They might keep multiple mistresses and molest the servants. What mattered was to do such things in private, behind a rampart of exquisite manners, high fashion and fine houses. It’s that keeping up of appearances which has left us today with a priceless legacy of art, architecture and landscape design to enjoy.
Maybe politeness had its uses after all.