Memories are made of this: the art of the souvenir

As much of the world enjoys a summer break and thoughts turn to mementoes of happy trips abroad, Jessica Lack traces the origins of the souvenir — including those, from Roman flasks to celebratory figurines, that have become highly collectible

A Roman light green glass pilgrim flask, circa 3rd-4th century AD, and an equestrian figure of Garibaldi by Thomas Parr, circa 1861

A Roman light green glass pilgrim flask, circa 3rd-4th century AD, and an equestrian figure of Giuseppe Garibaldi by Thomas Parr, circa 1861

The humble holiday souvenir can be a treasured possession, evoking happy memories of bygone travels — a snow globe from Switzerland, pebbles from the beach, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa  on a fridge magnet, all say ‘I was there’, making sense of our fragmented experiences and helping to write our autobiographies.

The souvenir’s history is an ancient one, dating back to antique lands: medieval pilgrims returning from Canterbury picked up metal badges to wear on their cloaks; 18th-century aristocrats shipped views of Italy and Greece back to Britain; the Belle Epoque cognoscenti, Baedeker in hand, rifled souks and markets under the watchful eye of an emissary from Thomas Cook. 

For the historian, these keepsakes provide a compelling commentary on the cultural, political and economic life of the times and places in which they were produced and acquired.

A Byzantine Mould for an Ampulla, 5th-6th century AD, and a Roman Glass Pilgrim Flask, 3rd-4th century AD

A Byzantine steatite mould for an ampulla, circa 5th-6th century AD. 2½ in (6.5 cm) square. Sold for £6,875 on 27 October 2009 at Christie’s in London

A Roman light green glass pilgrim flask, circa 3rd-4th century AD. 8⅔ in (21.8 cm) high. Sold for $2,500 on 11 December 2014 at Christie’s in New York

The first souvenirs that we know about are ampullae: little flasks used by pilgrims to bring home holy water or oil from religious shrines. Some of the earliest examples date back to the Roman era, when soldiers journeying across the empire stopped to worship at sites sacred to Christian martyrs. 

By the Middle Ages the Church was doing a brisk trade in holy water, selling small lead phials to its pious followers.

Portrait of Robert Langton, Venetian School, 1512-13

Venetian School, circa 1512/13, Portrait of Robert Langton (1470-1524)

Venetian School, Portrait of Robert Langton (1470-1524)circa 1512/13. Oil on canvas, laid down on panel. 34¼ x 27¾ in (87 x 70.5 cm). Sold for £47,500 on 9 July 2014 at Christie’s in London

In the medieval age, pilgrims bought inexpensive badges from holy sites to display their devout credentials. The above portrait of Robert Langton, nephew of Thomas Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, was painted in Venice in 1512-13, while Langton was on a pilgrimage that also took in Santiago de Compostela, Rome and Naples. 

The portrait depicts the nobleman in sombre dress, holding a pilgrim staff from which a hat is suspended, decorated with alloy badges purchased from places of worship.

A Rare 18th-century Printed Fan from the Frost Fair

Printing was an important technological factor in the development of the holiday souvenir, because it was instantaneous and provided cheap decorative items that were ideal impulse buys. Early examples of printed keepsakes date from the Frost Fairs held during the ‘Little Ice Age’ of the 18th century, when the River Thames in London froze.

Resourceful printers risked their lives to drag heavy presses onto the ice and sell mementoes of the winter holiday, such as the fan above.

Views of Mount Vesuvius, Neapolitan School, Late 18th Century

Neapolitan school, late 18th century, Views of Vesuvius. 10¾ x 17 in (27.6 x 43.2 cm). Sold for £12,500 on 29 October 2010 at Christie’s in London

The aristocratic gap year known as the Grand Tour was one of the defining educational experiences of wealthy young men in the 18th and 19th centuries. The souvenirs they brought home were designed to show off their sophistication, be it a view of the Grand Canal by Canaletto or a fan painted with pictures of the Colosseum.

The picture postcard began its life as a Grand Tour memento, with tourists bringing back groups of small oil paintings depicting beauty spots, or famous natural events such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1794 (above).

Some travellers were disappointed to find the pale ruins of ancient Greece surrounded by the hubbub of modern life. To rectify matters, they commissioned artists to represent the buildings as isolated fairy-tale castles, in which a tourist might be depicted wandering like a latter-day Gulliver on his travels.

A Swiss Enamelled Gold Snuff Box, 1840, and an Equestrian Figure of Giuseppe Garibaldi, circa 1861

A Swiss enamelled gold snuff box set with a Roman micromosaic plaque, circa 1840. 3⅜ in (8.7 cm) wide. Sold for £153,600 on 28 November 2006 at Christie’s in London

An equestrian figure of Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) by Thomas Parr, circa 1861. 40 cm high. Sold for £764 on 20 September 2001 at Christie’s in London

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was the inventor of modern Gothic, Horace Walpole, who coined the word ‘souvenir’ around 1775 — from the French verb meaning ‘to remember’ — to describe a whimsical way of preserving memories.

This coincided with an explosion in the market for cheap decorative wares that could be mass-produced and easily personalised. It was, said Karl Marx, the ‘age of commodities’, as market value became the measure of an object’s worth.

Enterprising craftsmen were keen to provide their customers with a never-ending supply of trinkets. As well as depicting natural beauties such as the waterfall in the micromosaic, above left, they began to commemorate feats of engineering, marking the construction of bridges, dams and factories. Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Rotherhithe Tunnel, for instance, was celebrated on a snuff box.

Meanwhile, potteries turned out figurines depicting contemporary celebrities such Giuseppe Garibaldi (above right), whose display of bravery and charisma in the course of the unification of Italy had bewitched Europe.

A Tea Caddy and Work Box, India, Early 19th Century

A Vizagapatam tea caddy, Indian, early 19th century. 12¼ in (31 cm) wide. Sold for £4,750 on 15 September 2011 at Christie’s in Cowdray Park, West Sussex

An Anglo-Indian silver-mounted writing and work-box, Vizagapatam, early 19th century. 13½ in (34 cm) wide. Sold for £5,625 on 3 November 2011 at Christie’s in London

Adventurous 18th- and 19th-century colonialists on the Subcontinent battled mosquitoes and dysentery in their search for local carvings, sculptures and painted miniatures. But these eager treasure hunters did not realise they were dictating the subject matter of objects produced there.

From around 1750 the Indian port city of Visakhapatnam (then known as Vizagapatam) began to develop a thriving industry in beautiful sandalwood tea caddies for the European market. These elegant, Georgian-style boxes may have looked exotic to British eyes, but there was no tradition of making them in India, and their manufacture actually helped to undermine the indigenous crafts that had once flourished in the area.

André Masson, Souvenir de Long Island, 1942

André Masson (1896-1987), Souvenir de Long Island, 1942. Assemblage of shells, glass and nails on a painted wooden panel. 29.8 x 16.2 x 3.9 cm. 11¾ x 6½ x 1⅝ in. Sold for €75,000 on 17 October 2018 at Christie’s in Paris. Artwork: © André Masson DACS, 2022

When André Masson arrived in New York from war-torn Europe in 1942, he memoralised the event with this sculpture, made from driftwood and shells picked up on a Long Island beach. The artwork exemplified the Surrealists’ experiments in collecting, displaying and juxtaposing different types of objects in uncanny ways. 

André Breton, Max Ernst and Paul Eluard were avid souvenir hunters, always on the lookout for curiosities that could be used to subvert preconceived ideas on the history of art.

Joseph Cornell, Aviary [Cockatoo and Watches], circa 1948

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), Aviary [Cockatoo and Watches], circa 1948. Wood, paint, glass, metal and printed paper collage, with music box. 16¼ x 17⅛ x 4½ in (41.2 x 43.4 x 11.4 cm). Sold for $4,757,000 on 12 November 2014 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork: © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022

The solitary artist Joseph Cornell yearned to travel but spent much of his spare time walking the streets of Manhattan, haunting flea markets and thrift stores in his search for curiosities. An inveterate hoarder, he collected all manner of souvenirs from far-flung places he would never visit, ranging from stuffed parrots to novelty cigarette lighters and maps of foreign cities. He collaged these objects into custom-made boxes such as Aviary [Cockatoo and Watches], above — tightly curated mini-museums that conveyed his frustrated wanderlust.

Fragment of the Berlin Wall Signed by Ronald Reagan, 1989

The signature of Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) in black felt-tip pen on the surface of a fragment of the Berlin Wall. Approximately 25 x 13 x 2 in. Sold for $277,500 on 22 September 2016 at Christie’s in New York

In June 1987, US President Ronald Reagan visited West Berlin and gave a speech next to the Brandenburg Gate, directing the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to ‘Tear down this wall!’ The phrase quickly gained purchase, becoming a meme for ending the Cold War.

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Two years later the Iron Curtain collapsed, and images of people dismantling the Berlin Wall became a symbol for a new era of freedom and democracy.

Trophy hunters collected pieces of the wall as souvenirs of an extraordinary time. The 25-inch-long fragment pictured above was signed by Reagan himself, and realised $277,500 at auction in 2016.

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