Portraits of 18th-century gentlemen

Whilst in Italy, Grand Tourists were keen to purchase souvenirs of their visit. Many returned home with works of art, antiquities and ancient sculpture for their own collections, and had their portrait painted. In the days before photography, this was not only a wonderful memento of a trip abroad, but also quite a status symbol, ensuring that those who viewed the portrait back home knew where you had been.

Pompeo Batoni

The most sought-after painter in Rome was Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787), an Italian artist who specialised in portraits of foreign travellers. Of the 225 known individual sitters he painted, 175 were British. Batoni was known for capturing an excellent likeness within an idealised Arcadian setting, incorporating classical sculpture and architecture, establishing the sitter as a person of culture, knowledge and refinement.

Costing 200 scudi (equivalent to £50 at that time and £4,500 today), sitting for Batoni in his studio in Rome for a full-length portrait was considerably less expensive than sitting for Gainsborough or Reynolds in London.

Henry Peirse

At Rome, Mr Peirse had his portrait taken, and Horn had him always to dress to go to his sittings until it was finished. It is a very striking likeness, and a great ornament in the Hall.”

Robert Hird, Hird’s Annals of Bedale, c.1808-1831 [ZBA 27/1/19]

Henry Peirse of Bedale (1754–1824) was painted by Batoni in Rome in 1775 and, until the 1940s, this portrait used to hang in Bedale Hall. It is now held at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. He is standing in a typical Batoni pose, wearing the fashionable costume of a wealthy young man on the Grand Tour: a red coat, matching cream waistcoat and knee-breeches, white stockings and black shoes with buckles, holding a black tricorn hat and cane.

He is shown in front of the Ludovisi Ares, a 2nd-century Roman copy of a late-4th-century BC Greek original sculpture of Ares/Mars, the god of war. Discovered in Rome in the 1620s, this was acquired by the Ludovisi family and displayed at their villa on the Pincian Hill in Rome. It was one of the must see antiquities of the 18th century; an engraving of it was made by F Piranesi in 1783.

A marble urn sits on the opposite side of the staircase, with fragments of classical architecture in the bottom left-hand corner. A brown and white greyhound jumps up at his knee. Dogs are frequently included in Batoni’s portraits, perhaps as a symbol of loyalty and fidelity, or because the sitter wanted their canine companion included. Young gentlemen on the Grand Tour would often bring their dogs with them on their travels.

In 1774, Henry was elected MP for Northallerton and was a member of the Society of Dilettanti from 1776. Several generations of the same family might embark upon a tour of Italy and the Beresford-Peirse archive [ZBA] contains the travel journal of Henry’s grandson, also named Henry (Beresford), which has recently been transcribed by volunteers from The Arts Society, Hambleton.

Thomas Dundas and Thomas Orde

Two of our other travellers were also painted by Batoni. Thomas Dundas sat for a full-length portrait in 1764 and Thomas Orde for a three-quarter length portrait in 1773.