Pompeo Batoni: the Brits who marched on Rome

Pompeo Batoni: the Brits who marched on Rome

Martin Gayford

British aristocrats on the grand tour provided a stream of eager sitters for the Baroque artist Pompeo Batoni, whose portraits are about to go on show in London. Martin Gayford reports

On Thursday, April 18, 1765, the writer James Boswell visited the studio of the painter Pompeo Batoni in Rome.

There he saw an extraordinary portrait of a recent acquaintance, Colonel the Hon William Gordon, in progress. More than two centuries later, the picture – which goes on show at the National Gallery next month alongside other similarly over-the-top portraits by Batoni – remains quite a sight.

Colonel Gordon had elected to be painted in uniform with drawn sword, kilt and swathed in a length of Huntly tartan which the painter has made resemble as much as possible a Roman toga. He stands – indeed swaggers – with the Colosseum in the distance behind him, a statue of the goddess Roma at his side, and fragments of an ancient ruin at his feet. He looks as if he has just conquered the city, and in a way he had.

As the art historian John Ingamells once put it, “In the course of the 18th century there was a peaceful British invasion of Italy.” Or as Edward Gibbon – also in Rome in 1765 – observed with a touch of irony, “According to the law of custom, and perhaps of reason, foreign travel completes the education of an English gentleman.” Some restricted themselves to France and northern Europe, but for most the classical antiquities of Italy were the main objective. This was, of course, the Grand Tour.

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