Location: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, USA
Description: This oil painting executed in 1819 by Thomas Daniell (1749-1840) shows part of an extraordinary ‘Indian’ landscape at Sezincote House in Gloucestershire, UK. Still extant, and open to the public, this expensive experiment in the Indian style was completed in 1817. The style was characteristically British rather than European, associated with wealthy ‘nabobs’ returning from long residence in India to make their way in British society as best they could; the eclecticism of le jardin à l’anglaise when exported to Europe stretched more usually to the exoticism of chinoiserie. (1) Nevertheless, this garden illustrates a Europe-wide truth about how inland water was imagined in the period; water was Romantic if – and only if — it appeared to be wild rather than tame. By contrast, explicitly instrumentalized water – the waters of spas and canals, for example – remained resolutely unromantic.
Description: Samuel Crosthwaite’s picturesque view of Cockermouth in Cumbria works hard to underplay the transformative effects of the transition from water to steam power that took place in the first half of nineteenth century Britain. At the centre of the painting sits Derwent Mill with its distinctive chimney stack. The correspondence between the smoke drifting to the left of the picture and the storm-darkened clouds to the right, set in pleasing contrast with the verdant fields and sun-dazzled water in the foreground, gives the assurance that human intervention in the scene is in keeping with the natural order of things. But as aesthetic propriety labours to reassure that all is well with the world, a contemporary viewer might have recalled the time when the mills drew clean, renewable energy from the rivers Derwent and Cocker, beneath skies unsullied by noxious fumes.
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: Lakagígar is a 27km-long volcanic fissure in Iceland. The name means ‘craters of Laki’, after Mount Laki, the highest point at the centre of the fissure. Lakagígar was formed through a huge eruption in 1783-4 that had massive environmental, social, and cultural consequences for Iceland and indeed the rest of Europe, and which leaves a record in early Romantic literature.
Description: Newstead Abbey was Lord Byron’s ancestral home, nestled in the isolated landscape of Nottinghamshire.
Byron’s attachments in his short life were always transient, and usually deeply powerful. That was true of his affections for people, objects or places. But he had an extraordinary capacity to see beauty and inspiration in everything around him, and absorb that into his work and his actions.
Newstead is a hugely significant example of that. He lived there for only a small proportion of his tragically short life. Yet Newstead’s influence on him was huge, and his influence on Newstead is, of course, timeless.
Location: Sikornik Hill, also known as the Hill of Blessed Bronisława, Kraków, Poland
Description: Kościuszko’s Mound (constructed 1820-1823) is an earthen barrow built on the hill called Sikornik in the west of Kraków (1). Following Kościuszko’s death in 1817, it became a matter of national urgency to construct a memorial to honour his memory. Kościuszko was recognized not only as the commander of the last military effort aimed at preserving Polish statehood, but also as a national spiritual leader urging progressive social reform. Kraków, where Kościuszko’s Insurrection broke out in 1794, was an obvious choice for the location of the monument. Wawel Cathedral, the burial site of the Polish kings, was the most appropriate place for his remains. Its role as a shrine for national heroes was inaugurated in 1817 by the funeral of Prince Józef Poniatowski, the commander of the Polish troops under Napoleon. Kościuszko was buried beside him in 1818.
Description: Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001, Falun Mine, in Dalarna, Sweden, was, during the eighteenth century, one of the largest copper mines in Europe and a key locale for the development of mining technology. Many British Romantic-period travellers to Sweden wrote about visits to the mine and descents into its depths, although not Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97). Swedish visitors of note included the theologian and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) and the natural philosopher Carl Linnaeus (1707-78). However, Falun is probably now best known to scholars of the Romantic period as the setting for E.T.A. Hoffmann’s (1776-1822) story ‘Die Bergwerke zu Falun’ [The Mines at Falun] (1819), which Theodore Ziolkowksi, in his pioneering study German Romanticism and Its Institutions, describes as the ‘culmination’ of ‘the obsession with mines’ in German Romantic-period cultural texts (p. 55).
Description: This site brings together two iconic romantic objects, a waterfall and a hermitage. They are the more Romantically compelling because both are in ruins, remote and hidden from the public eye, part of a mysterious history only recently and partially recovered, and at the heart of a landscape associated with Druids and legends of King Arthur. Located in the village of Llyswen, Wales, overlooking the Wye River below the Black Mountains, they were built by John Thelwall, romantic radical and acquitted felon, poet and polymath, and the original of Wordsworth’s “Recluse.”
Reclusive hermits and dashing waterfalls have a long association in Romantic-era literature and culture, as Jonathan Falla has shown. Together and apart, they epitomize the neo-gothic sensibility that defined the age, associated with outlaws and bards in northern and border regions, but also stock features of late eighteenth-century landscape aesthetics and fashionable tourism, part of the process of constructing a British nation by assimilating and commodifying its margins. But Thelwall’s was neither the fashionable folly of a propertied dilettante nor the residence of a professional hermit; instead it was a labour of love by an eccentric exile and activist, a retreat for a notorious Jacobin fox-on-the-run, and a place to seek and test philosophies of revolutionary hope and renewal he shared with the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth. In fact, in both cultivating the persona of “New Recluse” and building his modest hermitage and waterfall, he was directly inspired by his friends, and inspired them in turn. Continue reading “John Thelwall’s Summer Study”
Description: Located just outside the Italian city of Naples, the volcano Vesuvius was one of the most spectacular instances of the ‘natural sublime’ typically visited as part of the Grand Tour of Europe. Vesuvius was in a more-or-less constant state of activity throughout the Romantic period and had a least six significant eruptions between 1774 and 1822. In a letter of December 1818, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) describes it as ‘after the glaciers [of the Alps] the most impressive expression of the energies of the nature I ever saw’ and his response is visible in the volcanic landscapes and imagery of Prometheus Unbound (1820). (1) Influential Romantic-period travel writing, such as A Classical Tour through Italy (1812) by John Chetwode Eustace (1762-1815) and Remarks […] During an Excursion in Italy (1813) by Joseph Forsyth (1763-1815), offered extended descriptions of the volcano and its environs for the increasing numbers of tourists who visited as well as information about the latest speculations in natural philosophy. Eruptions of Vesuvius were made the subject of numerous paintings, including celebrated works by the British artists Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) and Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97), by the German Jacob Philipp Hackert (1737-1807), and by the Frenchman Pierre-Jacques Volaire (1729-99), who died in Naples. They were often depicted in panoramic exhibitions in London and other European capitals – and, of course, they feature in countless works of fiction, poetry, and drama by authors across Europe. Arguably, Vesuvius drove the explosion (if the pun may be forgiven) in the use of volcanoes and volcanic eruptions in Romantic-period cultural texts right across Europe as metaphors and similes for everything from poetic inspiration to political revolution. Hence Lord Byron (1788-1824) no doubt had Vesuvius in mind when he lamented, in the thirteenth canto of Don Juan (1823), what he saw as the clichéd ubiquity of volcanic imagery: ‘I hate to hunt down a tired Metaphor –/ So let the often-used Volcano go;/ Poor thing! how frequently by me and others/ It hath been stirred up, till its Smoke quite smothers’ (ll. 285-8).
Description: With a current elevation of c.3350m (as of June 2019), Mount Etna is an active stratovolcano on the east coast of the island of Sicily. Etna was much less frequently visited during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than the more accessible Vesuvius, outside Naples, the usual terminus of the European Grand Tour (the main route to Sicily was via boat from Naples). The mountain had nevertheless been ‘famous from all antiquity for its vomiting up fire’, as John Dryden the younger (1688-1701), the son of the poet, reminds us in his posthumously-published Voyage to Sicily and Malta (1776). During the Romantic period, Etna and its eruptions were made the subject of many paintings and panoramas and featured also in numerous works of prose, verse, and drama produced and consumed across Europe.