Chatsworth House to Sherwood Forest: New take on Grand Tour is thoughtful art trail in East Midlands

By Mark Sheerin | 17 July 2015

From 1,000-acre parklands to Nottingham Contemporary, the reimagined Grand Tour is thoughtful and refreshing

A photo of a man standing inside a historic house surrounded by grand sculptures and art
Artist Pablo Bronstein takes a look at his latest space© Hugo Glendinning
These days most art lovers can afford to see Rome at least once before they die. But in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, the classical city break was a major expedition. These were the days of the so-called Grand Tour, a lengthy trip over land and sea in search of antiquity.

A photo of a huge sculpture of a colossal Roman marble foot wearing a sandal
Colossal Roman marble foot wearing a sandal (BC 150-50)© Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees
Grand Tourists are now as remote a prospect as ancient Romans. Their journeys to the Med took weeks rather than hours and, rather than duty free booze, they bought back a serious amount of art. In a world where adventure travel can be mediated by Google Maps, Grand Tours might even occasion for a certain wistfulness.

A photo of an ancient framed artwork of a man on a dark brown wall inside a gallery
The displays possess something of the Grand Tour's spirit about them© Hugo Glendinning
But you might say that a new venture in the East Midlands is bringing some of the poetry of bygone Europe closer in space and time. Devised by a conglomeration of tourism offices and supported by the Arts Council, the new Grand Tour is a thoughtful itinerary which can take as little as 48 hours.

An image of a gallery space full of old master paintings and artworks
The project aims to present art and venues in the region in a fresh light© Hugo Glendinning
Beginning at Chatsworth House you can experience one of the finest baroque private homes in the UK. The many windows are freshly gilded and the 1,000-acre parkland is just as resplendent. Once  inside, you’ll see the work of several generations of shopaholics. This is the Devonshire Collection, where treasures of ancient Egypt share corridor and rooms with pieces of contemporary design.

A photo of a black box on spiked feet with small white sculptures inside it in an art gallery
The conglomerate is supported by Arts Council England© Hugo Glendinning
That’s not to mention the time-travelling drawings of Pablo Bronstein. The young London artist has enjoyed solo shows at the ICA in London and the Met in New York, but he is a long way from the white cube here. And so his architectural studies and fantasia have plenty to work off. In the Old Master Drawing Cabinet, for example, Bronstein has drawn up plans for an immense theatrical backdrop built to house an old master painting. That painting, by Rembrandt, is also on display in the adjacent wall.

A photo of an ornate gold chair with a dark red pillow and inner
One of a pair of George II giltwood x-frame armchairs by William Kent (circa 1730)© Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees
From drawing cabinet we moved to white box for the next stop on the tour. Bronstein has chosen more work from the Devonshire Collection to show with his own at Nottingham Contemporary. The resulting show includes a marble foot from ancient Rome, as large as a suitcase, and coronation chairs once belonging to William IV and Queen Adelaide. It is always interesting to look at loaded artefacts like these with the tweezers of contemporary art.

A photo of a man standing sideways in the entrance to a room full of grand artworks
The new Grand Tour can be traversed within 48 hours© Hugo Glendinning
For this leg of the tour, Bronstein has completed a gallery-wide drawing of the Via Appia outside of Rome. In terms of ruin porn, these compare with those widely circulated photos of Detroit. It seems where there is urban decay, so you will find artists. And if they didn’t dabble themselves, then many Grand Tourists would employ a painter to get down impressions just like the one evoked here today in Nottingham.

An image of a painting showing an ancient colosseum swept by vegetation and plants
Joseph Wright of Derby, The Colosseum, Rome, Italy, Daylight© Derby Museums Trust
Modern Grand Tourists are invited to see as few or as many of the venues as they wish. But you are advised not to miss the Harley Gallery. Deep in Sherwood Forest, the space feels like a visitor centre for the curious Welbeck Estate. It is not where you might to expect to find a highlight from last year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice and a project initiated by Dutch urbanist Rem Koolhaas. But that is exactly what the show Corridors and Welbeck Tunnels offers.

A photo of two people carefully retouching old master paintings inside a workshop
Careful conservation of Wright of Derby works© Andy Taylor-Smith
This gives visitors to the historic manor house an opportunity to consider the 19th century activities of its fifth Duke of Portland. Too retiring for a major expedition, the Duke went on an architectural odyssey, building between ten and 12 kilometres of tunnels around and beneath his property. He even built a grandiose and never-to-be-used ballroom. No one knows why, but here we have rare photos to prove it.

A photo of two ornate gold thrones on a white plinth inside a modern art gallery
The coronation chairs once belonged to William IV and Queen Adelaide© Hugo Glendinning
Criss-crossing the region doesn’t take long and my next stop, Derby Museum and Art Gallery, has a small but concentrated show to mark their involvement in the Grand Tour. It comprises just two paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby, both of which show the Colosseum. This is great Grand Tour fare, of course. But both paintings are in need of restoration and now lie in ruins as haunting as the grand ampitheatre from which they take inspiration.

An image of a painting of a dream sequence involving angels, birds and a forest scene
Salvator Rosa, Jacob's Dream (Late 1650s). Oil on canvas© Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees
In worst condition is the Colosseum, by Moonlight (circa 1789) unseen in public for more than 200 years. But a touchscreen unit lets you make up for lost time and scrutinise the various layers of misapplied paint using infra-red imaging. It is a mystery why someone should have overpainted the work of an artist as celebrated as Wright of Derby. But perhaps mystery is what you look for in your Grand Tour.

A photo of a man standing on black and white marble flooring in a magnificent house
Bronstein's works include a gallery-wide drawing© Hugo Glendinning
If you’re feeling intrepid, there is nothing not to like about a weekend spent touring round these four Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire venues of interest. The personable Duke of Devonshire may have called the Grand Tour “a tourist-driven visitor experience”. But it is a well-curated experience which caters for the highbrow end of the tourist spectrum; it is a marvel that none of the venues have had to dilute their offering in order to take part. You won’t see Rome for the first time, but you might see the East Midlands with fresh eyes.

  • The Grand Tour is at Nottingham Contemporary, Chatsworth, Derby Museums and The Harley Gallery until September 20 2015, returning from March-July 2016. Visit thegrandtour.uk.com for full details.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More places to see great art in:

Tate Britain, London
Current exhibition Fighting History – 250 Years of British History Painting explores the importance of the genre and its changing position in the art world. Until September 13 2015.

Stirling Castle, Stirling
A 14-year project to recreate the lost tapestries of James V has recently been completed in the largest tapestry project undertaken in the UK for 100 years.

Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, Telford
A new sculpture by David Nash marks the launch of Shifting Worlds, a new contemporary arts programme at Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron exploring the impact and legacy of the Industrial Revolution. Until the end of 2015.


Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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