Posted: March 16th 2018
by Joanne Lewis, Marketing Assistant, with help from Lucy Purvis, Holkham Archivist
The year is 1712 and a young, impressionable Thomas Coke, heir to a great fortune, leaves Holkham to gunfire and a fanfare to set off on his grand tour of epic proportions. Where did he go and what did he see? More importantly, what was an 18th century Grand Tour?
With less than two weeks until Holkham re-opens to the public, preparations for this year’s exhibition in the hall are well underway. The exhibition holds great importance in Holkham’s history as it marks 300 years since Thomas Coke returned from his Grand Tour, inspired to build and Italian villa on the north Norfolk coast. Follow his journey from adolescence to adulthood, as he was educated academically and culturally, amassing a great collection of treasures and trophies as he went.
So what was a Grand Tour? I suppose one could describe it as today’s equivalent of a ‘gap-year’; it was something a young English gentleman would partake before settling down in society, travelling to gain knowledge and experience culture, the young gentleman would broaden his horizons over a number of years and make the transition into adulthood. Unlike a modern day gap-year, one would hop from masque balls to operas to academies as opposed to bars and beaches!
Over the course of his six year tour, Thomas Coke travelled through France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and the Low Countries. He was accompanied by an experienced tour guide, Dr Thomas Hobart and his assistant Dr Domenico Ferrari, an accountant Edward Jarrett, as well as numerous grooms and manservants.
The team at Holkham have had the task of piecing together Coke’s tour by delving into the archives. Catherine Zoll is in charge of the design and execution of the exhibition and has brought Thomas Coke’s story to life for visitors to the hall. Adults and children can walk in the shoes of Thomas and dress up in the costume of the day. Holkham’s archivist, Lucy Purvis, has brought to light some very interesting and noteworthy books, letters and documents.
In particular, one such book gave the team a real insight into the day-to-day life of Thomas on his travels; this was his account book. Lucy, has been insisting that account books can be interesting; well, I think I am coming round to the idea.
Complete with dates, descriptions and costings, we can uncover Thomas Coke’s quotidian purchases of half a barrel of wine, coffees, bread, butter, candles and laundry. We learned that he enjoyed chocolate, and tea but despised garlic! As part of the exhibition, you can discover the food he ate. The accounts also revealed items of historical significance such as the payment to ‘Signor Baartoli for drawing the triple Crown and mitor of the Pope’, along with payments for strong paper for drawing which he used when visiting buildings during his intensive architecture lessons in Rome. This is where his enthusiasm for Palladio and the ancient Vitruvius was ignited. The accounts also detail wages to his staff providing us names and dates of employment of various important people, as well as payment for carriages which tells us his mode of transport at a certain point of his journey.
The accounts also list the purchase of paper and sealing wax, this would be for letter writing to keep in contact with family, particularly his guardians. Lucy has been kind enough to show me the family letter books which have been so well preserved for over 300 years. Below you can see a letter from Thomas’ brother in 1717, and one from Thomas, complete with his signature, addressed to his grandparents.
Thomas was taught civil law, humanities, French, Italian and mathematics and his love of classical antiquity was particularly encouraged by his guide Dr Hobart. He studied at various academies but also took time to perfect his musical talents, riding, vaulting, fencing and dancing.
One of the most important things to do to portray your transition into adulthood through all of your lessons and experiences on the Grand Tour, was to commission a portrait by a notable artist. Thomas Coke’s most significant portrait was by Francesco Trevisani, whereby he is depicted as a gentleman and as our archivist described him, learned, accomplished and complete. This portrait now hangs in the Manuscript Library of the hall, where during your visit, you can discover a replica of Trevisani’s studio, where the 20 year old Thomas sat for his portrait all those years ago.
In April 1714 whilst in Rome, Thomas met William Kent, an acquaintance who was to have great significance to him once back in England. Kent was a gentleman of humble origins who had travelled to Italy, trained as a painter and later turned into a landscape gardener, interior and furniture designer and architect. The two became very good friends, travelled and purchased manuscripts, books, sculpture and artwork together.
Once Thomas Coke returned from his Grand Tour, it is said he had already formulated plans to create a Temple of the Arts, a building to house and display his epic collection of treasures and trophies. Together with designs from his good friend William Kent, a Palladian style house was created.
The hall took thirty years to build, but sadly Thomas died in 1759, five years before its completion leaving his widow, Lady Margaret to complete the project.