Escapes in the Victorian Era: Isabella Gardner's Travel Journals

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

When Isabella Stewart Gardner willed that her galleries be preserved for posterity, she left more than just art. Like many well-to-do couples in the Victorian age, the Gardners traveled extensively, and Isabella was vigilant about keeping detailed journals of their adventures. You may get to peek at them if you're visiting Boston, but the Gardner Museum has done a brilliant job of digitally archiving the books in their entirety.

Throughout the latter half of the 1800s, the Gardners traveled across Europe, Asia, and the American West. They were trailblazers in a way — they were some of the very first Westerners to visit Cambodia. Though, a menu from their 1883 visit to Angkor Wat indicates they dined on pâté, duck, and Champagne, so they were hardly roughing it.

Preserving the memories of a trip was a little different in the late 19th century. Travelers would buy these journals and fill them with photos from professional photographers, sort of like we might collect postcards today instead of taking our own mediocre photos of the Taj Mahal. You could purchase shots of more than just the shrines and sights; Isabella especially liked ones of locals in their native dress.

Along with the photos, she included captions and itineraries, pressed flowers, and her own watercolor paintings. Once more portable cameras became available, there are a few original photographs included — a hazy shot of boats taken by John Gardner in Egypt, their party at dinner in Spain, and Isabella nearly hidden amongst the leaves in a garden, possibly soaking up inspiration for her famous courtyard back home in Boston.

Explore more of Isabella's travel journals online at the Gardner Museum.

(Images: As linked above, courtesy of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)