Leigh Hunt’s Parlour at Surrey Gaol

Two engravings of Leigh Hunt sitting at his desk in his cell at Surrey Gaol.

Contributor: Serena Baiesi

Location: Surrey Gaol, Horsemonger Lane, London. Detail from Edmund Blunden, ed., Leigh Hunt. A Biography (Archon Books, 1930)

Description: In 1812 Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) wrote that the Prince Regent was a violator of his word and a disreputable libertine in an article published in The Examiner — a radical newspaper he edited with his brother John. As a result he was sentenced to prison for two years from 1813 until 1815 for seditious libel and sent to Surrey Gaol, Horsemonger Lane. After a month spent in a small dwelling, Hunt was moved to a two-room suite in the prison infirmary. Here Hunt spent his days reading, writing, meeting with friends who constantly visited him, and enjoying the company of his wife and children. Even though during his prison days Hunt suffered several nervous attacks, characterised by palpitations, headaches, and uncontrollable anxiety, he describes this period in his autobiography, in many letters, and in reported conversations, as very convivial. Secluded in prison, Hunt became very productive, constantly contributing to The Examiner, writing poetry later collected in Foliage, composing the long poem The Story of Rimini, and beginning his drama The Descent of Liberty. He also became the centre of a very animated literary and liberal intellectual circle, which became legendary as a model for Romantic intellectual sociability.

Hunt called in workmen to transform his prison rooms into a real “poetic bower” or “aesthetic parlour.” As he wrote in his Autobiography (1850): “I papered the walls with a trellis of roses; I had the ceiling coloured with clouds and sky; the barred windows I screened with Venetian blinds; and when my bookcases were set up with their busts, and flowers and a pianoforte made their appearance, perhaps there was not a handsomer room on that side of the water.” He also brought in multiple couches, pictures (including portraits of John Milton and John Hunt), a bust of Homer sculpted by his wife Marianne, a lute, and a servant (Blainey, 9). To complete the effect of enchantment, Hunt turned the small yard outside this room into a pleasure garden that he called a “flowery investment”, where he planted trees, shrubs and flowers, and where he spent many hours reading, playing with his children, walking and talking. Charles Lamb obligingly acknowledged that “there was no other such room, except in fairy tale” (Hunt, 148).

Hunt’s cell became the scene of many gatherings of intellectuals, poets and celebrities: Lord Byron, who was introduced to Hunt by the radical writer Thomas Moore; the Lambs (Charles with his sister Mary, who brought food and poetry); the journalist William Hazlitt (who waited deferentially outside the door to be welcomed); and the novelist Maria Edgeworth were among the most distinguished visitors. But many others used to spend time there, enjoying evenings in conversation, and even attending dinners (the curfew was at 10 pm): school friends (John Scott and Thomas Barnes) and his old school master (Cowden Clarke); painters (like Benjamin Haydon, who came for breakfast and dinner, and brought his giant painting the Judgment of Solomon for inspection); aristocrats (Sir John Swinburne and Sir Thomas Browne); editors and publishers (Thomas Alsager, the financial editor of The Times, and James Cawthorn, a London publisher); and even economists (as for example Jeremy Bentham). It was not unusual to have six visitors together in the morning with more expected later in the day for supper. Amongst a progressive circle, it became fashionable to be seen in Leigh Hunt’s prison room.

Recent critics — like Greg Kucich and Jeffrey Cox — have stressed the need to move beyond an interpretation of the Hunt’s gatherings as “dilettantish literary legend” to acknowledge the serious political implication of Hunt’s meeting place. The cell’s role as a literary salon for a coterie that involved Byron, Moore, Hazlitt, Haydon and Lamb renders the interior decoration of this room far more political, more obviously defiant and deliberately ostentatious, than the apparently trivial details suggest (see Hessell, 80). Following Kucich, we should examine with new critical eyes “the extravagantly decorated prison cell where Hunt staged what might be considered the introductory sessions of the Cockney School” (Kucich, 1). I would draw special attention to the metaphorical meanings of the objects included in Hunt’s cell as pointing to a Romantic aesthetics.

The fantastic scene in Hunt’s dungeon fostered a group identity and a cultural project that strongly affected the course of Romanticism in the early nineteenth century. If Hunt cultivated mirth and aesthetic luxury for his prison coterie, he also integrated those pleasures into a ‘culture of dissent’, a term used by Nicholas Roe in his study of Keats’s political contexts. There is a strict affinity between the way that this cell represents a middle-class parlour, and Hunt’s writing, in particular his articles for The Examiner. In these, the familiar essay is shaped by Hunt to recreate on the page the imaginary abode, a space that simultaneously reflected and deflected his prison experience, a site of domestic longings, in order to be part of a free sociable community. Cox has described The Examiner as the Hunt circle’s “textual home”, meaning a welcoming meeting place for the like-minded, but this may be stretched to include the transformed and domesticated space of Hunt’s imprisonment.

The need to create a warm, informal, and companionable meeting place within the walls of Horsemonger Lane was extended beyond them into his writings where he mirrored his personal relationships, intellectual conversions, and domestic life. The way in which Hunt fashioned his prison cell also recalls how he created on paper his political identity, and his overall dissenting practices in terms of adopting the aesthetically fantastic, his mockery of institutions and his desire to astonish the authorities.

Date: 1813

Creator: unknown

Subject: Leigh Hunt

Type: building

Format: engraving

Language: English


Blainey Ann, “The Wit in the Dungeon: Leigh Hunt in Surrey Gaol”, Books at Iowa, no.34, 1981, 9-14.

Cox, Jeffrey, Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and their Circle, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Hessell, Nikki, “Jailhouse Journalism: Leigh Hunt and the ‘Examiner’, 1813-1815, in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 54 (2005), 79-92.

Holden, Anthony, The Wit in the Dungeon: A Life of Leigh Hunt, London: Little, Brown, 2000.

Hunt Leigh, The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt, ed. J.E. Morpurgo, London: The Cressent Press, 1948.

Kucich, Greg, “‘The Wit in the Dungeon’: Leigh Hunt and the Insolent Politics of the Cockney School”, European Romantic Review, 10 (1999), 242-53.

Roe, Nicholas, John Keats and the Culture of Dissent, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.