János Erdélyi’s Travelling Box

image of János Erdélyi's travelling box, open

Contributor: Emese Asztalos

Location: Private collection, Hungary

Description: When the poet, János Erdélyi (1814 – 1868) left Hungary in the mid-1840s to join a former pupil on his Grand Tour, he took this Travelling Box with him. The box could be held in its owner’s lap throughout the journey, and it was also appropriate to use it in a comfortless guesthouse. It has several functions: it is a writing-desk, toilet-table, treasure chest and a kind of workplace, from which Erdélyi sent reports about his travels to Hungarian journals. Beside papers, inks, correspondence, and pens, it could hide toilet accessories and secret belongings. The mirror could help with shaving, which was very important for Hungarian nobles or intellectuals, who were especially proud of their beards.

János Erdélyi launched his career in the 1830s. The new, democratizing frames of Hungarian society made it possible that the talented boy of humble origins could be educated and as a result achieve a new social and cultural position in Hungarian Literature. Meanwhile he graduated as a lawyer and became a tutor in a Hungarian noble family. Sensing the spirit of the age, he contributed to the formation of the new poetical discursive paradigm shift. Along with Sándor Petőfi (one of the most famous Hungarian poets), he participated in the development of the new, original, and fresh voice of Hungarian language and poetry in a provocative, inventive way. Additionally, he first collected and published authentic Hungarian folk songs and wrote folk-song-like poems himself. The versatility and interdisciplinarity of his interests are indicated by the diversity and various forms of his lifework. He was a journalist, editor, critic, academic, theatre-director, teacher, essay-writer, and the first textbook writer of Hungarian philosophy.

After the death of János Erdélyi’s wife (1842) and his daughter (1844) – with the hope of easing his recovery from grief – he decided to accompany his former pupil on his Grand Tour as a chaperon. At that time this kind of travelling had become a regular feature of aristocratic education in Central Europe, as in the rest of the continent, with students travelling in search of art, culture and the roots of Western civilization. Through the new, foreign horizon they could fruitfully compare their experiences with the Eastern European culture, held up as an example, and also – with the knowledge gained – revive and reform (or tend to reform) their own national “conditions”. With aristocratic connections and months (or years) to roam, they visited museums and perfected their language skills, mainly in Germany, France, England and Italy. Before undertaking this European tour, lasting almost two years, Erdélyi pursued another type of fashionable travel as well, called a “Home Tour”, which involved getting to know the regions of the homeland as Franz Liszt also did in Hungary in 1839–40 and 1846. Presumably, Erdélyi originally had his Travelling Box made (by an unknown carpenter) for this occasion at the end of the 1830s. Due to the circumstances and length of travelling, the inconvenience of the chariots and roadside inns and the urge to record and note the sights and impressions on the spot, it was essential to bring such proper equipment as the travelling box.

The Box represents the travelling habits of the nineteenth century more broadly, and could be referred to as an instance of Alltagsgeschichte (Microhistory), or could be read as a special material of the “Realms of Memory” (in the sense that it is a symbolic element of the memorial heritage and the Reform Ages of Hungarian community). It also has several further metaphoric layers. Its function as a writing-desk highlights Erdélyi’s method of archiving the foreign atmosphere, his own thoughts, social forms and cultural motifs with the aim of preserving and conveying them to his own countrymen. It also symbolises the open-minded attitude of Erdélyi’s journey: in every country he visited he collected books, engravings, replicas of famous statues, and oil paintings. This consuming “behaviour” interfaces with the aim of reforming and improving his homeland. As a Romantic pilgrim, Erdélyi visited not just galleries, museums and theatres, but toured every important literary or historical memorial place. The Travelling Box is a kind of evidence or emblem for how an intellectual from the Habsburg Monarchy became a European citizen, and how travel is part of education and specifically self-education. Romanticism and romantic motifs, spaces, and thoughts (like the erupting Vesuvius, the wild sea, or his meeting with Jacob Grimm) could be deep, concrete experiences, which were reflected and “re-figured” on the desk of his Travelling Box.

As a result of Hungarian history (the nineteenth century Independent Revolution, the World Wars, Nazi and Soviet Regimes etc.), demolitions and nationalisations, it is also exceptional to find private collections, especially those representing a heritage from the age of Romanticism. Erdélyi’s Travelling Box is possessed and owned by the poet’s granddaughter, Ilona Erdélyi T. (DSc. Scientist of literature, Professor emerita) who handles, interprets, and preserves this lifework. The image and the story of this Box has never been published until today.

Date: 1830s

Creator: unknown

Subject: János Erdélyi

Media rights: photograph by Monika Sziklay Cs. Object owned by Ilona Erdélyi T.

Object type: travelling box

Format: wood

Publisher: Ilona Erdélyi T.