Thomas Dundas in Italy, 1759-1763

In 1759, Thomas Dundas (1741-1820) was the son and heir to the estates of Sir Lawrence Dundas, a merchant contractor making large amounts of money equipping the military with supplies during the Seven Years War. Sir Lawrence held an appreciation of the arts and of the classics and sponsored his son to undertake a Grand Tour. Thomas is one of a number of 18th-century travellers to Italy within our archive collections.

From letters surviving in the Dundas papers deposited at the Record Office [ZNK], it appears that Thomas (aka Thomie) left England at the age of eighteen, in April 1759, bound for Switzerland, with a gentleman from Geneva acting as his guardian, and a servant in tow. He then returned home from his travels in 1763.

Correspondence between Sir Lawrence and his wife during Thomie’s time abroad, indicates that the extent of his expenses alarmed his parents, who believed that he must have been losing money gambling. A letter from Lausanne dated July 1760 reveals that his parents were unduly worried, for a fellow traveller states that ‘…I never saw him lose more than about twelve Louis at a time at play.”

The writer goes on to reveal what he saw as the real reason for Thomas’s high expenses:-

 “In the first place he keeps about two or three servants; he has to the best of my knowledge four horses in his stable and a chaise; he is very extravagant in clothes, ruffles, entertainments etc….”

“…he is giddy, careless, inattentive to all money affairs beyond expression, cheated of consequence by servants…it will not be surprising that his expenses should amount to a considerable sum”.

It seems that his parents were relieved rather than alarmed by the content of the letter. Thomas continued his Grand Tour, though surviving letters show that Sir Lawrence remained concerned at the expenses his son was incurring. He wrote to Peggie (his wife) in October 1706:-

“…in about fifteen months he has spent about £1800, an expense that my circumstances can not afford. Besides the little attention he gives my letters as to expense, I understand that he has gone on an expedition to Turin without every acquainting me. I assure you that I am not at all pleased.”

Unfortunately, the Dundas papers do not reveal much more about Thomie on his Grand Tour. It is understood that he remained on the continent until 1763, visiting Turin, Florence, Venice and Rome. In March 1763, Sir Lawrence wrote to his wife that he has heard that Thomie “had got my last letter which will set all right as to credit &c, he was soon to leave Rome and would certainly be at Paris in beginning of Aprile…“.

Letter from Sir Lawrence Dundas at Aske Hall to his wife Peggie in London, 18 March 1763 [ZNK]

In 1764, Thomas was elected a member of the Society of Dilettanti, a gentleman’s club which sponsored the study of ancient Greek and Roman art, established in 1734 by those who had been on the Grand Tour.

He was also elected as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1784, a learned society charged with ‘the encouragement, advancement and furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries.’ He was also President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Receipts for Thomas Dundas’s admission fee and annual contribution to the Society of Antiquaries of London, 10 Jun 1784 [ZNK X 2/3/89-90]

By the time Thomas returned home, Sir Lawrence had grown fabulously wealthy, purchasing estates in the North Riding of Yorkshire (at Marske-by-Sea, Redcar, Upleatham, Aske and Richmond) as well as houses in London and Hertfordshire. Thomas inherited his father’s estates in 1781, and sponsored a Grand Tour for his eldest son, Lawrence, in 1787.

Thomas Dundas was also a patron of the artist George Cuit the elder and architect Thomas Harrison, sponsoring their visit to Italy to study art and architecture from 1769 to 1775/6, as can be seen from a letter from the antiquarian and guide James Byres in Rome, who acted as their go-between, dated March 1776. View a transcript of this letter (in PDF format).

Letter from James Byres, Rome to Thomas Dundas regarding the expenses of George Cuit and Thomas Harrison in Italy, 29 March 1776 [ZNK X 2/1/4]

Whilst in Rome, Thomas Dundas sat for a full-length portrait by Pompeo Batoni, who painted many portraits of 18th-century travellers. The painting is dated to 1764, which suggests that it was completed after Thomas returned home to England in 1763. This portrait is considered to be one of Batoni’s finest works. It contains a fictitious arrangement of four of the most well-known and important marble sculptures of the classical world: the Apollo Belvedere, the Laocoön, the Belvedere Antinuos and the Sleeping Ariadne on top of a Triton fountain, from which a dog is drinking. Grand Tourists would have viewed these sculptures during their visits to the Vatican collections in Rome.

Dundas is strikingly attired, wearing ‘Batoni red’, an Italian, red frock suit with matching waistcoat and knee-breeches trimmed with gold braid and with naval-style cuffs, white stockings and black, buckled shoes. He holds an amber-headed cane and tricorn hat braided in gold, whilst pointing to Ariadne with his outstretched left hand.

The Apollo Belvedere, a Roman statue of the god Apollo of the 1st century AD, was discovered during the Italian Renaissance and displayed in the Vatican Palace from 1511. In the 18th century, it was considered the greatest ancient sculpture of all.

The Laocoön was excavated in Rome in 1506. It depicts a story from Greek and Roman mythology, as told in Virgil’s Aeneid. Laocoön was a priest, who attempted to warn his fellow Trojans about the ruse of the Trojan horse (the source of the saying ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’). He was attacked and killed, along with his two young sons, by giant serpents sent by the gods.

The Belvedere Antinuos was described in the 18th century as ‘one of the most beautiful heads of a young man from Antiquity’. An ancient Roman sculpture discovered in the mid-16th-century, it is now identified as Hermes/Mercury, messenger of the gods and protector of travellers.

Identified as Cleopatra until the early-19th century, when recognised as a sleeping Ariadne, this is a 2nd century Roman copy of an ancient Greek sculpture of the 2nd century BC. As well as being displayed at the Vatican set on top of a Roman sarcophagus and fitted as a fountain, another copy was to be found in the 18th century at the Villa Medici in Rome.