Description: In 1797, renowned philosopher and author, Mary Wollstonecraft sat for her last portrait made by John Opie, portrait painter to the royal family as well as a number of other influential Britons. Of the different portraits Wollstonecraft would sit for, this one stands out due to its serene expression. Compared to Opie’s first portrait of her in 1790-1, in which Wollstonecraft is holding an open book in her hands, gazing straight into the eyes of the beholder, the latter portrait is radically different. Holding no objects, only bearing the colors of black and white, she lights up against a dark background, gazing to her right. In front of Opie sits not only the feminist depicted in 1790-1, but a mother of one, and pregnant once again. However, the vividness of her eyes, the relaxed shoulders, and the relaxed composition defy the emotional turmoil that had defined the years before her untimely death. Eleven days after giving birth, later that same year Opie depicted her for the last time, Wollstonecraft would pass away.
Location: Calderdale, West Yorkshire Archive Service
Description: Anne Lister’s diaries were written between 1806 and her death in 1840, containing four million words mostly written in legible hand that detail her life as a high-class, Tory landowner residing in Shibden Hall. A small portion, like this entry, is written in the coded language that Lister called her ‘crypthand’, which makes for a mysterious-looking and illegible document in its mix of ‘Greek letters with symbols of her own devising’ (Lister and Whitbread 2010, xiii). The use of crypthand ‘allowed her the freedom to describe her intimate life in great detail’ (xiii), and with assured secrecy from any prying contemporary who might get it into their heads to read her diaries. It took until sixty years after Lister’s death until her relative John, the last Lister living in Shibden Hall, decided to attempt to decode the crypthand passages together with his antiquarian friend Anthony Burrell. What they found was so disturbing that Burrell suggested the diaries be burned, and John responded by hiding them behind a panel at Shibden Hall. Here they remained until his death in 1933, where Shibden Hall and its inventory passed to Halifax Town Council, making the diaries public property. Even so, it took until the 1980s before it came to light, beyond a narrow circle of scholars and historians, what had been so shocking for John Lister and Burrell: the ‘sections written in code discussed Lister’s romantic affairs with other women’ (Campbell 2022, 2).
Description: On the 22 December 1820, Goethe sent a small box to Jakob and Marianne von Willemer in Frankfurt. The lid of the box showed a hoopoe (Upupa epops). The present, ‘manufactured by the most delicate hands and with a liberal heart’, was enclosed with a letter addressed to the couple. However, it was intended for Marianne alone, Goethe’s former lover. Goethe’s phrasing avoids very carefully any personal dedication. The gift ‘may be received friendly and, according to an attached note, be used at least for a while’ (Goethe 1986, 104). The husband should by no means feel offended. It was, nonetheless, the picture on the cover which revealed to Marianne that she was the recipient. Consequently, the enclosed paper did not bear a mere ‘note’, but a poem beginning with a direct address:
Du! Schweige künftig nicht so lange
Tritt freundlich oft zu mir herein;
Und laß bey jedem frommen Sange
Dir Glänzendes zur Seite seyn. (Goethe 1986, 106)
Thou! From now on, don’t be silent for so long
Step friendly in to me more often;
And, with every pious chant,
Let something gleaming be next to your side.
Description: A story goes that Fryderyk Chopin’s heart was smuggled from Paris to Warsaw in a jar of cognac by his sister, Ludwika, in the weeks following his death on 17 October 1849. The rest of Chopin’s body, we know for sure, was buried at the cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris, the city where he lived for the last nineteen years of his life. The heart, in its jar, remained in Warsaw, apart from a brief evacuation during the Second World War. It is still there, the amber liquid preserving it in a remarkable state of health for a one hundred and sixty five-year old heart.
Two aspects may excite the curiosity of scholars of European Romanticism: the heart itself, and the notion of home. Firstly, it is the story of the place the heart held in Romantic symbolic thought and its role in artistic creation. Secondly, the homecoming of the heart raises questions about home, nation, and belonging in the context of death. The object’s journey from France to Poland complicates ideas about Romanticism and national identity. Already at the time of Chopin’s death, rumours and conflicting accounts of the heart abounded. The difficulty of establishing the facts that led to the heart’s removal from Chopin’s corpse and its arrival in Warsaw reflects the heart’s status as a mythical object. What does the popularity of this story tell us about Romantic ideas about home, belonging, fatherland, illness, death, and love?
Description: Lovers past and present are united in A. W. N. Pugin’s depiction of the tomb of Abelard (1079–1142) and Héloïse (1098–1164) in the Parisian cemetery of Père Lachaise. The gothic monument with the reclining statues of the medieval lovers serves as suggestive background to the two young lovers, captured in intimate conversation in an Elysian garden, where death and love, stone and vegetation invite a contemplation of the passing of time with love as a transcending force. The solitude à deux contrasts with the overpopulated city of the dead, crammed with funeral monuments, which meets the modern visitor to the cemetery.
Description: This line engraving of the celebrated ‘Falls at Terni’ (the ‘Cascata delle Marmore’) in the central region of Umbria in Italy was created by John Landseer after a watercolour by Joseph William Mallord Turner. Turner produced it in 1818, as part of a series of illustrations for James Hakewill’s Picturesque Tour of Italy. It was based on Hakewill’s drawings and other impressions gathered from descriptions in travel books. The age-old fascination with the spectacle of the leaping and crashing waters of the river Velino, one of the highest falls in Europe, reached new heights in the Romantic period. As Lord Byron organized his journey from Venice to Rome in the spring of 1817, he made sure it would take in the falls. Back in Venice, on 4 June, he wrote triumphantly to his London-based publisher John Murray: ‘I visited twice the fall of Terni – which beats every thing’. He turned the experience into poetry in stanzas 69-72 of the fourth canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a section that soon became one of the most widely appreciated and quoted from that extremely successful poem. Its popularity contributed to fixing and defining the experience of the falls for English-language readers, first, and then – in translation – for readers all over Europe and beyond. In Victorian times, the stanzas were reproduced in John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Central Italy (1843) in the section dedicated to the Cascata delle Marmore, included in Route 27: ‘Florence to Rome by Arezzo and Perugia’.
Location: Lewis Walpole Library, Farmington, Connecticut
Description: This is a broadside advertisement for the Phantasmagoria, an extraordinarily popular form of entertainment that entranced and captivated British audiences when it opened at London’s Lyceum Theatre in the Strand in October 1801. A carefully curated set of ghostly conjurations, optical illusions, trompe l’oeil effects and scientific curiosities, the Phantasmagoria show was both a development of, and an improvement upon, the earlier magic-lantern shows of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and, as Simon During has argued, the first of such practices to make a significant impression upon the urban entertainment industry in the first three decades of the nineteenth century . It is difficult to over-emphasise the importance of the Phantasmagoria to British culture, literary and otherwise, in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. As a primary point of confluence between British and Continental European entertainment, economics and technological advances, its very existence attests to the complexity and the richness of cross-cultural interaction and exchange in the period.
Description: These books in Keswick Museum’s collection were part of Poet Laureate Robert Southey’s Cottonian Library. The library is known for its fabric overcovers, which Southey’s daughters and their friends created, and the name ‘Cottonian’ – coined by the family as a pun on the fabric used and Sir Robert Cotton’s famous book collection – is how we now identify pieces from this library. Fabric and sewing have been traditionally associated with women, and the re-covering of books in recycled dress fabric is a perfect metaphor for how the women of Greta Hall subverted the dichotomy of public and private spheres.
Description: A decorative craze which gripped Paris during the French Empire was for ‘papiers peints panoramiques’, wallpaper which, when strips were aligned, turned into a wide scene, like a fresco. This often replaced ‘boiseries’ or panelling as the main decorative programme of a reception room. Robert Barker’s Panorama, inaugurated in London in 1787, had enthused spectators. It allowed them, from a viewing platform, to be surrounded on all sides by a painted backdrop representing a cityscape like Edinburgh or Constantinople or indeed a battlefield. The design was much imitated and panoramas became hugely popular throughout Europe (1). Obviously private houses, however grand, could not copy the scale of this tourist attraction, but panoramic wallpaper, when used throughout a room, sought to give you a similar immersive experience.
Description: The beau monde of Romantic-period Britain, dashing Regency gentlemen, male characters in the fiction of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, and in recent films and TV series: all of these become strikingly present through this pristine dark blue coat dating from around 1803. It was made in London by a tailor patronized by George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell (1778-1840), foremost among the early nineteenth-century dandies and the inventor of a simple but exquisite way of dressing aimed at enhancing the male physique. The coat brings to life the understated style he and his circle developed. By reinventing male fashion, these men created new modes of presenting and being (in) their bodies: besides demanding the highest standards in tailoring and attention to detail, they were innovative in valuing personal cleanliness and grooming. Though, in the Romantic period, such practices were restricted to a few individuals from the privileged elite, they also anticipated later phenomena up to recent forms of metrosexual or fluid masculine identity. This blue coat has these and other intriguing stories to tell – not least that of its rediscovery.