Summary: Nocturnal scene; a group of men watch the eruption of Mount Vesuvius from a pier next to a tower, with harbour and lighthouse at left, sailing ships and Bay of Naples at right and flames and clouds of smoke from the volcano covering the sky in the background; within painted frame with black edge, annotated with title in white ink below.  Summary: Titled ‘Molo di Napoli, con terribile eruzione del Vesuvio mandata fuori la sera de 15 del mese di Giugno, 1794; ad ore 2 di notte.

A royal armchair traveller: The Grand Tour and the King’s Topographical Collection

George III never visited Italy. Instead he collected prints, drawings and guidebooks enabling him to travel virtually to antiquity's greatest architectural and artistic sites. Mercedes Cerón explores this rich collection of Grand Tour material to shed light on George III's particular brand of armchair tourism.

A large number of views and maps in the King’s Topographical Collection correspond to locations that were once linked to the Grand Tour.[1] Visiting the settings associated with the classical authors they had studied was considered an important ‘part of the education of the aristocracy and gentry in 18th century of Europe – principally (though by no means exclusively) of the British Isles’.[2] Moreover, travelling to Italy was regarded as an opportunity to purchase antiquities and works of art that would show the traveller’s improved taste back at home. France and Switzerland were also part of the journey, which could be extended to Germany and the Netherlands. In the early 19th century, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey and Northern Africa became other popular destinations for Grand Tourists.

George III was not much of a traveller.[3] Unlike his younger brother, the Duke of Gloucester, who bought and commissioned a considerable number of works of art during his trips in the 1770s, the King never visited Italy. His purchases of Italian prints and drawings from the collections of Cardinal Albani and of the British consul in Venice Joseph Smith were made through agents, probably on the advice of his mentor John Stuart, third Earl of Bute (1713–1792).[4] However, the King’s collections included copies of the maps and guidebooks that most Grand Tourists would consult on their travels, as well as examples of the single-sheet prints and albums of views they would bring back as souvenirs. These materials could help recreate at least certain aspects of the Grand Tour experience in the calm and seclusion of the King’s own library.

Vue de la Maison de M. Le Doux

A view of Madame Ledoux's Hotel in Paris

A view of M. Ledoux's Parisian hôtel in the late 1700s 

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Equipped with their guidebooks and maps and accompanied by their tutors, most Grand Tourists would cross the Channel and travel through France and part of Switzerland before reaching Italy. They would spend some time in Paris, where they practised the language by mixing with local society and, depending on their personal interests, visited the tailors, the theatres and the shops and attended lectures and scientific demonstrations. 

In this ‘townscape of power, activity, order and style’, British travellers could admire examples of recent and contemporary French architecture, such as those depicted in the Vues pittoresques des principaux édifices de Paris by architect and theorist Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand (1760–1834).[5] Durand included in his series the main sights of Paris, such as the Bastille, Les Invalides, Notre-Dame and the Louvre, but he also showcased the work of fashionable Neoclassical architects like Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728–1799) and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736–1806). Examples of their designs can be found in a series of exquisitely drawn anonymous views, elevations, plans and sections of Parisian private houses in the King’s Topographical collection, probably produced in the 1780s–1790s (see, for instance, Maps K.Top.124 Supp.fol.11.).

Veüe et Perspectiue de Lantrée de Paris par la porte de la Conference

A view of the Porte de la Conference in Paris

A view of one of Paris' principal city gates, the Porte de la Conférence 

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George III could also follow on the steps of earlier Grand Tour travellers by leafing through the pages of the two volumes of prints and drawings compiled by the antiquary Walter Bowman (1699–1782). Bowman travelled in France and Italy as the tutor of successive pupils in the 1720s, 1730s, 1740s and 1760s. His volume of Italian views is dated 1739 (Maps 7.TAB.15.), while his French views were bound separately in about 1766 (118.c.2.). The latter are mainly 17th-century etchings by Israel Silvestre and Adam Perelle depicting the main sights of Paris and the gardens and châteaux in its vicinity. A large number are devoted to Versailles, but Fontainebleau, Saint-Cloud, Chaville, Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Noisy-le-Roi are represented as well. 

Some of the drawings Bowman himself made show the ideal Grand Tourist in action. Two sketches in red chalk of the countryside around Berry-au-Bac (Aisne) are described in the table of contents as ‘taken from the camp of Sabinus’, with a reference to the corresponding passage in Julius Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum (118.c.2., pp. 174–175). The supposed site of Caesar’s camp near Reims is the subject of a map, also in red chalk, annotated with Bowman’s calculations of distances (p. 176). Moreover, Bowman’s travel sketching in France resulted in two watercolours that evince his interest in Gallo-Roman engineering. With the same text in hand, he observed and drew the stonework of the Aqueduct of Traslay in Bourges (p. 181) and the composition of the walls of Bourges ‘as described by Caesar in his Comment. Lib.7.’ (p. 182).

Vue de la source de l'Arveron

A view of the source of the River Arveiron in the Graian Alps

The sublime Graian Alps and River Arveyron are depicted in this etching by Carl Ludwig Hackert 

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The majority of Grand Tourists would travel from Paris to Lyon and then to the Franco-Savoyard border and across the Duchy of Savoy, although some preferred to take a detour via Geneva.[6] In the second half of the 18th century, their experience of the Alpine scenery would have been mediated by their readings on the Sublime. Later in the century, widespread fascination with Alpine glaciers prompted Swiss publisher Christian von Mechel (1737–1817) to publicise Horace Bénédict de Saussure’s ascent to Mont Blanc in two beautifully coloured etchings (Maps K.Top.76.77.c. and Maps K.Top.76.77.d.). The King’s Topographical Collection includes a number of views of the most popular Alpine spots frequented by travellers, such as the Mont Cenis pass and the Mer de Glace. They are signed by Geneva-based artist Carl-Ludwig Hackert (1740–1796), whose brother Jacob Philip worked in Rome and Naples, where he specialised in painting views aimed at the Grand Tour market. The latter’s paintings and drawings were often reproduced in printed series, such as the Vues des environs de Rome (1781, see Maps K.Top.82.1.).

Vedutta della città e porto de Livorno

A view of the city and port of Livorno, Italy

A view of the busy port of Livorno on the Ligurian Sea

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Some travellers, wary of the inconvenience and length of the journey through France and of the dangers involved in crossing the Alps, would choose to sail from Britain to the port of Livorno (Leghorn) on the western coast of Tuscany. Although the journey by sea, which could take up to three months, was not exempt of risks, this was the preferred route to send back artworks acquired in Italy.[7] Livorno’s busy port is the focus of eight views in George III’s collection. Their dates range from the heyday of the Grand Tour in the 1750s, to 1816, when travel in the Mediterranean was resumed after the Napoleonic Wars.

Le Tombeau d'Adrien ou Chateau St Ange

A view of the Ponte Sant'Angelo and the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome

Abraham Ducros' views of Rome were popular with Grand Tourists

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Once in Italy, Rome was the main destination for Grand Tour travellers. As Rosemary Sweet notes, navigating the city successfully and productively required not only some preparatory reading, but also the services of a guide (cicerone) or an antiquarian like the already mentioned Bowman.[8] Ciceroni were eventually replaced by popular ‘guidebooks’ like Giuseppe Vasi’s Itinerario istruttivo… di Roma (1763), which could include recommendations on the ‘traditional tourist purchases of prints’.[9]  George III’s collection contains many 18th-century views of Rome of the kind that would appeal to Grand Tourists. A small album of etchings after Giambattista Piranesi’s evocative vedute (119.b.18.) would have been regarded as both an attractive and practical (because of its size) acquisition. Equally common additions to Grand Tourists’ luggage were the hand-coloured views published by Giovanni Volpato (1735–1803). Volpato’s links to the Grand Tour market were not limited to his role as a printmaker and publisher of series like the Vues de Rome et de ses environs (1780), his views of the interior of the Palazzo Farnese and the prints after Raphael’s Vatican frescoes (Maps K.Top.81.43.g., Maps K.Top.81.69.a. and Maps K.Top.81.61.n-w.). He was also involved in the excavation of antiquities and in dealing in both originals and replicas of Roman sculptures.[10]

Veduta della Galleria dipinta da Annibale Carracci...nel Palazzo Farnese

A view of Annibale Carracci's fresco gallery in the Palazzo Farnese, Rome

Views of Annibale Carracci's magnificent galleries at the Palazzo Farnese were published by Giovanni Volpato in 1777

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Other popular destinations outside Rome and Florence were Venice and Naples. The sparkling views of Venice painted by Canaletto were greatly admired by British Grand tourists who, depending on their means, would acquire either the originals or high-quality prints.[11] The King owned several paintings of Venice and Rome by Canaletto from the collection of Consul Joseph Smith, as well as a large number of related prints.  Antonio Visentini’s album of preparatory drawings and prints after Canaletto’s works for his Prospectus Magni Canalis Venetiarum (1735–1742), now in the British Museum, was once in George III’s collection.[12] Three volumes of drawings of Venetian palaces entitled Admiranda Urbis Venetæ (1730–1740) and later editions of and copies after Visentini’s prints can also be found in the King’s Topographical Collection (71.i.1. to 71.i.3.).     

View from the Piazza San Marco to the Schiavoni

View from the Piazza San Marco to the Schiavoni after Antonio Canaletto

Visentini’s drawing was based on Canaletto’s Riva degli Schiavoni looking East in the Albertini Collection, Rome, acquired from Consul Joseph Smith

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Travelling south to the Kingdom of Naples became an integral part of the Grand Tour mainly after the discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the 1730s–1740s.[13]  Visitors attracted by their ruins could also indulge their scientific interests by watching the frequent eruptions of Vesuvius, famously documented by Sir William Hamilton and Peter Fabris in their Campi Phlegraei (1776). Almost 20 years later the volcano remained an object of wonder, depicted in two anonymous nocturnal views in the King’s Topographical Collection, possibly intended as souvenirs (Maps K.Top.83.61.i. and Maps K.Top.83.61.k.).  

Molo di Napoli

A view of Vesuvius erupting on 15 June 1794

Spectators gather to marvel at an erupting Vesuvius in June, 1794 

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On their return journey from Italy, some travellers chose to visit Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. These alternative routes became increasingly popular in the late 18th century, at a time when the type of Grand Tour traveller was beginning to change and its focus to broaden. A number of albums in the King’s collection relate to the twilight of the Grand Tour and to the origins of tourism as we understand it today. They were all conceived, produced and marketed around the idea of travel by Vienna-based publisher Domenico Artaria (1775–1842), whose Italian family had been dealing in prints since the 1770s. In Johann Jacob Strüdt’s Salzburg (Maps 7.Tab.64.(3.) or Karl Postl’s Bohemia (Maps 7.TAB.38.), travellers visit not only lakes, mountains, churches and castles, but also modern spas and other health resorts. Johann Ziegler’s 1798 German views reproduce a journey along the Rhine for an audience interested not only in history and architecture, but also in any signs of industrial and technical progress (Maps 6.Tab.12.). Attractively coloured and illustrated by skilled printmakers, their travel accounts were probably published with armchair travellers in mind.

Bad Gastein im Salzburgischen

A view of Bad Gastein, Austria

The Gastein waterfall on the outskirts of Bad Gastein in Austria was a popular destination for day-trippers and tourists

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Ansicht von Rüdesheim unweit Bingen

A view of Rudesheim and Bingen on the Rhine

This print was part of an album of fifty views of the Rhine published by Domenico Artaria

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Professional artists were another type of travellers associated with the Grand Tour. Most artists travelled to France and Italy in order to see the masterworks they were expected to emulate. But some, like the caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827), were also in search of new experiences and subjects for their works. Rowlandson, who visited Paris on many occasions, went to Rome in about 1782 and to the Low Countries and northern Germany in 1791-1792.[14] His view of the Place de Meir in Antwerp shows a combination of picturesque architecture, casual mixture of the sacred and the profane and local colour likely to match most travellers’ expectations (Maps K.Top.103.58.n.).

Place de Mier at Antwerp

A view of the Place de Mier in Antwerp

After a visit to the Low Countries and Northern Germany, Thomas Rowlandson published prints of his travel views with Rudolph Ackermann

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This quick overview has been selective in its attempt to explore how the collection could replicate the Grand Tour in the King’s library. But the views and maps in the Topographical Collection also cover other Italian regions and cities that have not been mentioned in this essay. The same applies to the rest of Continental Europe. Despite a noticeable over-representation of works made in the second half of the 18th-century, their chronological scope goes beyond the Golden Age of the Grand Tour, traditionally identified with the years from 1764 to 1796.[15] This richness and variety allows for many other alternative ‘tours’ and virtual wanderings.


[1] Peter Barber estimates that ‘no less than about 33% [of the collection] is taken up with France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland which were particularly associated with the Grand Tour’ (see Peter Barber, ‘Royal Geography: The Development and Destiny of King George III’s Geographical Collections’, p. 3).

[2] Francis Haskell, ‘Preface’ to Andrew Wilton and Ilaria Bignamini (eds.), Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century (London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1996), p. 10.

[3] ‘One of the remarkable features of George's way of life was his comparative lack of interest in travel’, see Cannon, John. “George III (1738–1820).” John Cannon In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by David Cannadine, May 2013. (accessed November 21, 2016).

[4] See Barber, p. 9, and Jane Roberts (ed.), George III & Queen Charlotte: Patronage, Collecting and Court Taste, (London: Royal Collection Publications, 2004), p. 157.

[5] Jeremy Black, France and the Grand Tour (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 4. 

[6] Jeremy Black (2003), pp. 37–38.

[7] Eleanor Hughes, ‘Trade and Transport: The Westmorland in Context’, in M. D. Sánchez-Jáuregui and S. Wilcox (eds.), The English Prize. The Capture of the Westmorland, An Episode of the Grand Tour (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), p. 33.

[8] Rosemary Sweet, Cities and the Grand Tour: The British in Italy, c. 1690-1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 101. 

[9] Sweet, ibid., p. 105.

[10] Giorgio Marini, ‘Giovanni Volpato e l’Opera di Traduzione’, in Giovanni Volpato, 17351803 (Bassano del Grappa: Ghedina & Tassotti Editori, 1988), p. 20. 

[11] For the paintings, see Jane Roberts (2004), pp. 169–174.

[12] Maps K.Top.78.65.e. (now BM 197*.d.7.).

[13] Sweet (2012), p. 165.

[14] Hayes, John. ‘Rowlandson, Thomas (1757–1827).’ John Hayes in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by David Cannadine, January 2008. (accessed November 23, 2016).

[15] Ilaria Bignamini, ‘The Grand Tour: Open Issues’, in The Lure of Italy, p. 33.

Mercedes Ceron picture
  • Mercedes Cerón
  • Mercedes Cerón studied at the University of Salamanca (BA) and University College London (MA and PhD). She has worked at the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Ashmolean Museum. Between 2011 and 2013, she worked on Francis Douce’s collection of prints as Junior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford. She is currently working on George III's Topographical Collection at the British Library.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.