The ‘Messiah’ Violin

images of a violin

Contributor: Robert Samuels

Location: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Description: You can see the ‘Messiah’ violin today. It is on display at the Ashmolean Museum as the centrepiece of their collection of musical instruments. It was made in 1716 by the most famous of all violin makers, Antonio Stradivari of Cremona. It is, indeed, a ‘Stradivarius’, a ‘Strad’, the most perfect example from the hands of the man reputed to make the most beautiful-sounding instruments the world has ever known.

You can see it today. You can see it, but you cannot hear it. No-one can. The violin rests in its glass case, mute symbol of perfection in sound, unplayed, forever. It has never been played. It was kept by Stradivari himself in his workshop, its perfection such that he wished never to part with it. Kept after him by his son Paolo, sold on Paolo’s deathbed in 1775 to Count Cozio di Salabue, a collector who never touched it. Bought from him by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, a violin maker and collector who kept it under lock and key, but told everyone of its worth, causing it to be named ‘Le Messie’, because like the Messiah its coming was eagerly awaited but never seen. It may possibly have been heard, once, at the London World Exhibition of 1862, where, in a competition organised by himself, he entered an unidentified violin anonymously, which was declared superior to all others played against it. The Messiah did eventually come to London, exhibited in 1871 at the Exhibition to celebrate the opening of the Royal Albert Hall. But still it was not heard. Bought at last by the London dealers W. E. Hill and sons, it was those sons, Arthur and Alfred, who quite rightly bequeathed it at last to a museum where its perfection could remain unchallenged forever.

The mythical status of this unheard and yet peerless instrument is of course a Romantic trope. While all of the history recounted above is true, it is also couched in terms which betray its Romantic intent.

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Illustration from Portuguese periodical O Panorama showing the railroad between London and Greenwich, 1840

Illustration from Portuguese periodical O Panorama showing the railroad between London and Greenwich,1840

Contributor: Jorge Bastos da Silva

Location: Author’s own collection

Description: O Panorama (The Panorama) was one of the most ambitious cultural magazines of the Romantic period in Portugal, considered to be the years between ca. 1825 and 1865. This illustration reflects an increasing tendency among Romantic period Portuguese intellectuals to see England as a nation at the forefront of progress, and the railroad as the means of ensuring the spread of progressive ideas, objects and people across Europe. It thus serves as a corrective to other more celebrated, and more pessimistic, accounts by Romantic artists of modern technology, its clarity and optimism standing in stark contrast with Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, which the Romantic painter J. M. W. Turner was to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1844.

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Erasmus Darwin’s Artificial Bird

Erasmus Darwin's Artificial Bird. Pen sketch of a mechanical bird.

Contributor: Alice Rhodes

Location: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield, UK

Description: Although best known for his careers as poet and doctor (or perhaps for his grandson Charles, who would go on to lay claim to the Darwin name in the public consciousness) Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was also a prolific inventor proposing apparatuses of every kind from systems of canal locks to a steam powered chariot. Many of these, like the “Artificial Bird” pictured above, can be found in the commonplace book which Darwin kept between 1776 and 1787, now housed at Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield. There is no record of the bird leaving the pages of the commonplace book until its reconstruction by Erasmus Darwin House in 2013, yet Darwin’s bird is more than a flight of fancy. Nor was it a mere toy or curiosity. It can be read as an instrument or experiment through which Darwin gained knowledge of both physics and avian physiology, and it hatched from a long European history of creating such mechanisms.

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George Eliot’s Piano

A piano, belonging to George Eliot

Contributor: Delia da Sousa Correa

Location: Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry.

Description: Purchased on 22 November 1869 for the 50th birthday of the novelist George Eliot by her partner George Henry Lewes, this Broadwood piano was delivered to a grieving household. Lewes’s middle son, Thornfield, had returned from farming in Africa with a painful illness and had died, aged 25, just a month previously. It was a period when neither Eliot, who was writing Middlemarch, nor Lewes, were able to work. That the piano was purchased then, indicates that it represented something of deep significance. Not surprisingly, no flurry of references to the new piano fills Eliot’s correspondence at this date. Fittingly however, the piano has an implied presence as a source of solace a decade later when, on the first anniversary of Lewes’s own death, a line in Eliot’s diary for 8 Sept 1879 reads simply: ‘Darwin. Schubert’ (Journals, 180). ‘Darwin’ may denote a visitor, or his books; Schubert she must have been playing at the piano. Eliot’s journal further records that she had ‘Touched the piano for the first time’ after Lewes’ death on 27th May (Journals, 175). This piano is, however, representative not just of the personal importance for George Eliot of Romantic music but of its significance for numerous areas of Victorian culture in Britain.

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A copy of Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes, 1822

A copy of Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes, 1822

Contributor: Jeff Cowton

Location: The Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere

Description: This is a copy of the 1822 edition of William Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes in its original board covers, containing an account of an ascent of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike. Five hundred copies of the Guide were printed, selling for 5/- (25p) each. This copy is of a size that could be carried on a tour. Wordsworth’s Guide was deeply influenced by his travels in Europe, in particular his experience in 1790, when he (then twenty years old) walked through France to the Alps with his friend Robert Jones. The history of this account of the ascent of Scafell Pike suggests in addition how Rousseau’s influential depictions of the Alps affected how the landscape of the Lakes was experienced.

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Tippoo’s Tiger

Tippoo Sultan's Tiger Automaton/Statue

Contributor: Jean-Marie Fournier

Location: Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Description: Now an exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, Sultan Tippoo’s « Man-Tiger organ » is simultaneously an automaton, a sculpture in the Gothic taste, a musical instrument, an instance of popular craftsmanship in the spirit of the Enlightenment, and an elaborate practical joke. The object enjoyed great popularity in its day, celebrated in penny broadsides, chapbooks and newspapers, so that its fame was well-established long before it reached England. When it did arrive in Britain in 1800, it was exhibited first in the Tower of London, and then in East India House, Leadenhall Street. There it was seen by both William Blake and John Keats.

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The Eudiometer at Tintern

The Cavendish Eudiometer

Contributor: Tim Fulford

Location: The Wye Valley/The Royal Institution

Description: In 1800 a man inspired by Wordsworth’s visionary poetry made a trip to Tintern Abbey. Based in Bristol, he was a friend of Coleridge and Southey and was in the midst of editing Lyrical Ballads for the press; he also wrote nature verse in his own right. He was employed, however, not as a poet but as a scientific enquirer, and on his excursion to the river Wye he was armed with an improved eudiometer—the best instrument for measuring the proportion of oxygen, the gas first isolated by Joseph Priestley, in the atmosphere. ‘The Eudiometer’, he wrote, ‘that I have lately used is a very simple & commodious one – It consists of a tube about 5 inches long containing 200 grains of water – The space between the 140 & 180 grains is graduated. – This tube is emptied of water in an atmosphere when you wish to know its composition & plunged into a solution of muriate or sulphate of iron impregnated with Nitrous gas.’(1) He was Humphry Davy…

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A Cloud

John Constable's Cloud Study, Hampstead, Tree at Right

Contributor: Clare Brant

Location: Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, London

Description: ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’: the first line (and proper title) of Wordsworth’s poem about daffodils (pub.1807) has epitomised Romantic poetry for generations of English schoolchildren (and for some, created resistance to it.) What made clouds Romantic? Why did poets and artists across Europe follow William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and John Constable (1776-1837) in making them subjects of Romantic poems and paintings?

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Fragment of a cancelled copper plate from William Blake’s America

Contributor: Robert Rix

Location: Library of Congress, Washington DC

Description: The poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) printed his Illuminated Books, combining text and picture, from copper plates. The technique he used was unique and is still subject to debate. We know that he wrote directly on the copper with an acid-resistant liquid; he then proceeded to cover the plate in corrosive acid that etched away the uncovered areas of the plate, leaving text and design in relief, which was finally inked and placed in a rolling press. The exhibit shows how Blake painted text in mirror writing so that the plate, when pressed against the paper, prints in normal script. Legend has it that Blake was instructed in this peculiar printing technique in 1788, when his dead brother, Robert, appeared to him in a vision. However, Blake never gave any detailed account of how his etchings were made. The exhibit is the only surviving fragment on which Blake’s etching technique is visible. It has therefore been of great interest to critics who have tried to reconstruct how Blake made his Illuminated Books.

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Shakespeare’s Chair and the Polish Princess

Shakespeare's Chair

Contributor: Nicola J. Watson

Location: The Princes Czartoryski Museum, Kraców, Poland.

Description: This chair is part of the original collections of the Princes Czartoryski Museum (as of December 2016 part of the Polish National Museum). It is clearly an eighteenth-century chair. It has lion claws for feet, metal snakes for arms and is ornamented idiosyncratically and expensively on the seat back with a golden lyre. Above this, an inscription in Latin reads ‘William Shakespeare’s Chair.’ At first glance, this seems entirely unlikely; however, the back of the chair conceals a surprise. Open up a hinged door and within, reverently entombed in this outer shell, you find the remains of a much older chair. This is what is left of one of ‘Shakespeare’s chairs’. The story of how it travelled from Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon to Kraców describes in little Shakespeare’s import in the Europe of the 1790s as an exemplar both of Enlightenment ideals and Romantic habits of mind.

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