In the pre-internet days, we relied on accounts from travelling writers and painters to report back on other worlds. They showed us what the fashions, politics and attitudes were in far flung societies. In this episode, we pick through some artworks inspired by travel, asking ourselves, what does it convey to us about the artist’s view of these places, and how does it make us reflect on our own culture?
In an oil painting from 1758 by the Scottish artist Gavin Hamilton, we see James Dawkins and Robert Wood discovering the remains of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria. This UNESCO site was deliberately destroyed by Islamist vandals during 2015 and 2016, proving that thousands of years of cultural history could be razed to the ground in minutes. Tricia Allerston, Chief Curator at the National Galleries of Scotland examines the painting – a stylised portrait of two wealthy, well educated, modern men wearing leather boots and white togas, showing the eighteenth century fascination for the ancient world. They are accompanied by black servants in fine livery, a detail which Allerston points out is a problematic and uncomfortable one, but a stylistic trope very common in art from this period.
Professor Jeremy Black from the University of Exeter describes The Grand Tour – the 18th century trend for a well-heeled, social elite of predominantly male travellers to travel around Europe, appreciating great works of art. Focusing particularly on Paris and Italy, those on The Grand Tour discovered sculpture, painting and architecture, and in doing so, suggests Black, this upper echelon of society established its, “difference from the bulk of the population”, returning home feeling more cultured and cosmopolitan.
The Tour was mainly elite travel for pleasure; an experience that would help the traveller acquire taste, learn languages and return to Britain with a more cosmopolitan awareness of continental culture. Britain was wealthy during the 18th century, and considered by many as the heir to Ancient Rome, so the opportunity to learn more about Ancient Italy had a strong appeal.
British tourists, says Black, wanted to acquire the art of the photographer – an account of what you had seen – hence the popularity of Canaletto’s paintings of Venice (which weren’t always accurate as they bunched together buildings that weren’t side by side in reality). Artworks by British painters who spent many years travelling abroad were also popular, such as those by Richard Wilson, who often painted blue Mediterranean skies and seas.
There was a clear sense of superiority over the Italians, Black explains, which drew from a British Protestant anti-Catholicism, coupled with a view of these continental neighbours as being autocratic, reactionary societies.
Whereas Britain at the time was viewed as a law abiding, parliamentary, enlightened society, those on the continent were considered to be living in an unenlightened place; in decline after the glory of Ancient Rome.
So many stately homes and gardens owned by the National Trust nowadays represent the British attempts to capture an image of Italian culture during the 18th century, with homes decorated with Italian paintings and sculptures. Jane Austen remains an 18th century author still very popular with modern readers, despite never having been abroad. The way she writes about sensibility, politesse, balance and harmony, argues Black, drew more from continental notions of balance and order (whether they were accurate or not) rather than anything distinctly British.
The episode also looks at the English artist John Webber, who accompanied Captain Cook on his third and final voyage to the Pacific Rim, where he discovered the Hawaiian archipelago. Webber was the ship’s artist, tasked with painting the landscapes, conditions and people they encountered on the journey.
Anne Lyden, chief curator of photography at the National Galleries of Scotland discusses Roger Fenton’s photos of the Crimean war and his portraits of men suffering from what would now be considered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
During the Second World War, at a time when many men had been called up to military service, women stepped in and were enlisted to take part in propaganda exercises, such as Lee Miller’s photos for British Vogue.
Finally the Scottish documentary photographer Sophie Gerrard reflects on some of her travels around India and Scotland. Working abroad for many years, then moving back to Scotland and spending time in areas that she didn’t know so well, Gerrard was exposed to situations that she often didn’t understand. She would spend time in communities where she did not grow up, and describes her experience of “being the other”.
Listen to the episode Artists and Travel from the series Reflections: Art, Life and Love now on the podcast provider of your choice.