During the time that it functioned as a monastic centre, the Monastery of Batalha was visited not only by the Portuguese monarchs and high clerical dignitaries but also by other individuals who we normally call ‘travellers’, in spite of their varied backgrounds. What unites them is the fact that they went to the Monastery for personal reasons, as documented from 1760 onwards with the visit of Thomas Pitt (1737-1793). Having concluded his university studies in Cambridge, he was picked to join a team of special envoys sent by the British monarch to meet with the Portuguese crown. He had his uncle William Pitt to thank for this, who was then Secretary of State to the English government which had organized this expedition, thus beginning a trend among recently-graduated young British aristocrats: a study trip with Italy as its final destination, baptised the Grand Tour. A stopover in Portugal, followed by Spain, was considered necessary not only because England was at war with France, which made a land crossing to Italy impractical, but also in order to investigate the origins of Gothic architecture, at the request of a circle of intellectuals and antiquarians from Cambridge. In particular, it was felt to be important to argue against an inconvenient theory, revived by Christopher Wren, claiming the Gothic style had emerged from the so-called Saracen art. From Thomas Pitt onwards, a visit to the grand monasteries of Estremadura – Alcobaça, Batalha and, sometimes, Mafra – would become part of the itinerary of many illustrious travellers from the second half of the 18th century, planned, as was often the case, by the Portuguese court itself. Numerous manuscripts and several printed works bore witness to these visits.
After Pitt’s return to England, Horace Walpole, keen to do justice to true Gothic architecture, commissioned the young man to sketch up a variety of decorative motifs, inspired by what he had seen on his voyage, for his residence in Strawberry Hill, near London.
The diary of Thomas Pitt’s voyage came to be familiar to a number of intellectuals, statists and British antiquarians. One of them would have been William Conyngham (1733-1796), an Irish aristocrat who from a young age became known for subsidising a visual record of the monuments of his native land. The then-popular vogue for Gothic architecture led him to seek the services of architect James Wyatt, in 1775, for the renovation of his ancestral home, Slane Castle. However, this renovation would only materialise some ten years later, after William Conyngham himself had visited the Monastery of Batalha. In 1772, in fact, he would come to Portugal on the pretext of health reasons, but of course with financial speculation and a desire to draw the already famous Gothic monastery in mind. Besides his own personal record he made in the company of Colonel Tarrant and Captain Broughton, he sought to obtain other drawings that existed at the time and commissioned work from the Porto painter João Glama Ströberle.
Conyngham got in touch with the architect James Murphy to try to produce a series of drawings about the Monastery of Batalha based on all the elements he had compiled during his visit to Portugal, most definitely with the objective of publishing them and seeking the favour of the London antiquarian circuit. However, on realising there was not enough material to do this, the patron would have suggested to the architect to travel to Batalha himself to proceed with an exhaustive study of the building.