The Grand Tour was a right of passage for aristocratic men – and a few women – which reached its heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Grand Tourists toured Europe and Italy, north Africa and the Holy Land as an essential and fashionable part of their education. The souvenirs these discerning travellers brought back with them – copies of the classical sculptures, monuments and buildings or ruins of Greece and Rome – are still considered to be in very good taste, as they were then. I started collecting these souvenirs about 20 years ago, after purchasing a small, lava-stone model of the tomb of a Roman consul from the third century BC. I really loved that piece, and it sparked a desire to follow in the footsteps of the original Grand Tourists.
Most of the souvenirs on the market today are 19th-century. Made for aristocratic buyers, souvenirs were top quality, including bronze, marble, alabaster and serpentine, with classical pieces – both sculptural and architectural – reproduced by famous 19th-century Italian workshops such as the Sommer and De Angelis foundries. Today, you might expect to pay £1,000–£1,500 at auction for a 12in bronze, perhaps a Narcissus, bearing either of these names. At the more affordable end of the market, a small, unmarked 19th-century bronze would be £50–£100, while more impressive pieces, such as large-scale bronzes and models of iconic architectural structures command high prices – up to £60,000. A big Antico Rosso (red marble) version of the Roman Forum, which is on many a collector’s wishlist, can cost up to £20,000 at auction.
I do most of my buying at auction, and I like to invest in a good cross section, including impressive electrotype sculptures. At a distance, these look just like bronzes but are often a third of the cost – ideal if you are looking for a lower price point. Dealers who sell the country house look, such as Walpoles, Portobello Road, will stock Grand Tour souvenirs, but my favourite specialist dealer is Craig Carrington in Stroud. Remember that condition is really important. You might forgive a marble some slight damage, but a bronze can’t be scratched and the patination has to be good.
These souvenirs, gathered by influential men including the architect Sir John Soane and the diplomat William Hamilton, brought the neoclassical to Britain in the 18th century. Hamilton’s collection of Greek vases directly influenced Josiah Wedgwood, for instance, whose ‘First Day’s Vases’ and early basalt pieces are based on designs in the diplomat’s collection. So, for me, these journeyed pieces forever changed British style.
FIVE FACTS ABOUT LISA
Lisa’s ‘best-ever buy’ is a c1775 Wedgwood basalt vase, which she purchased at auction about 15 years ago. The design was copied from one of William Hamilton‘s Greek vases and there is a similar counterpart in The British Museum.
A keen collector, Lisa’s varied acquisitions range from Grand Tour souvenirs and Georgian glassware to mid 20th-century art.
She started out in the music industry, at a record company situated next door to Sotheby’s. Lisa soon started to spend her lunch breaks at the auction house…
A native Welsh speaker, Lisa was schooled in Welsh.
LEARN MORE See classical artworks in all their glory at The British Museum or, for those on their own Grand Tour, visit the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Naples and the Musei Vaticani in the Vatican.