Herschel’s Grand Forty-Feet Telescope

Herschel's Telescope

Contributor: Elsa Cazeneuve

Location: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Description: This document is a hand-coloured illustration of Herschel’s Grand Forty-Feet Reflecting Telescope, engraved by J. Pass for the 1819 edition of the Encyclopedia Londinensis (or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature), and featured in the chapter related to “Optics”. At the time, Herschel’s Forty-Feet Telescope was the largest in the world and cost over 4000 pounds, paid for by King George III. Its construction began in 1786, and was completed in 1789; the telescope was erected at Herschel’s home, near Slough. It soon became a touristic attraction and a scientific curiosity: people would travel all the way from Paris to admire this new wonder and some even likened it to the Colossus of Rhodes. Later on, the telescope was marked on the 1830 Ordinance survey map of the area. Unfortunately, Herschel’s last telescope would take years to demonstrate its worth, as it had to rotate very slowly to show various aspects of the heavens. William Herschel and his sister Caroline, who worked together, found that the telescope was difficult to set up and maintain and William’s son eventually had it dismantled in 1840. Interestingly enough, the dates of construction and demise of the forty-footer cannot but recall those of the Romantic era: Herschel’s grand telescope came to serve as a symbol of the unbounded Romantic imagination.

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Erasmus Darwin’s Temple of Nature

Open copy of Erasmus Darwin's Temple of Nature

Contributor: Caroline Dauphin

Location: Private collection

Description: Tracing the development of life from marine animalcules to humankind, through “millions of ages”, in heroic couplets: such was the daring project of The Temple of Nature, the last poem written by Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). This original edition by Joseph Johnson matches the author’s ambitions: the poem was published in a large in-quarto volume, lavishly illustrated by Henry Fuseli. The size of the volume made it possible for the reader to admire all the details of Fuseli’s delicate frontispiece representing Urania lifting the veil of Nature. More accessorily, it also facilitated the reading of Darwin’s lengthy scientific footnotes.

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Sir Walter Scott’s Slippers

Sir Walter Scott's Slippers
Every effort has been made to secure permission to reproduce this image from the Edinburgh Writers’ Museum.

Contributor:  Barbara Schaff

Location: Edinburgh, Writers’ Museum

Description: These slippers were gifted to Sir Walter Scott in 1830 by a friend, Lady Honoria Louisa Cadogan, and her two daughters Augusta Sarah and Honoria Louisa. Like Byron’s and Shelley’s locks of hair, Walter Scott’s slippers are objects which point to the physicality of their owners. They are also signifiers for the appreciation and devotion invested in a revered male Romantic author. When Lady Cadogan and her daughters visited Scott in his home, Abbotsford, in the Borders, they were appalled at the state of his footwear – perhaps Scott’s appearance reminded them of the description of the unkempt Minister Josiah Cargill in St Ronan’s Well (1823), “whose feet were thrust into old slipshod shoes which served him instead of slippers”. Back home, Lady Cadogan’s daughters crafted spectacular slippers for him, allegedly using a centuries’ old tartar design going back to Ghengis Khan which had come through Lady Cadogan’s family. The slippers were sent to Scott with the following note: ‘The only thing we did not admire at Abbotsford was a (pair) of ugly, uncomfortable slippers we saw in (your) study so my daughters hope you will replace them by theirs.’ (https://www.historyscotland.com/news/sir-walter-scotts-slippers-go-on-display-at-the-writers-museum-in/)

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The Selborne Yew

The Selborne Yew

Contributor: Fiona Stafford

Location: St Mary’s Church, Selborne, Hampshire

Description: The great yew tree at Selborne features in one of the Romantic period’s best-known books: The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne by the ‘parson-naturalist’ Gilbert White (1720-1793). First published in 1789, White’s account of his Hampshire parish has never gone out of print. But the long literary life of White’s book is as nothing to that of the ancient yew, which endured for centuries before being toppled by a January gale in 1990. The celebrity of the Selborne yew in the Romantic period may be seen as both idiosyncratic and as part of a wider celebration of ancient trees – and by extension ancient places and deep-rooted national culture — that especially characterised Romantic culture in Britain and across Europe.

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Miklós Barabás, Bust of Sándor Petőfi (1846)

Miklós Barabás, Bust of Sándor Petőfi (1846)

Contributor: Emese Asztalos

Location: Hungary

Description: Sándor Petőfi (1823–1849) was not just a poet, but also a cultural hero and icon in Hungary. In his lifetime he was already what we might spell with symbolic capital letters: The Romantic Poet. His name could be transformed into a term, as in the case of Byron or Liszt. Of course this “Petőfism” is not so extensive as Byronism or Lisztomania, but still, the main features and attributes of his character could be also be abstracted to many of the same symbolic Romantic meanings, for instance freedom, youth or independence.

This portrait of Petőfi was painted by Miklós Barabás, who was the main protagonist of nineteenth-century Hungarian Art. All the most important figures of the nineteenth century were portrayed by him, so Petőfi’s popularity is underscored by the fact that the lead portraitist depicted him in 1846. As an engraving, it was published first on the cover of Petőfi’s Selected Poems in 1846, which immediately conveys several metaphorical messages. With its opening or initiating function, the picture reinforces the poet’s intention: his aim was to be considered as the embodiment of poetry itself. In his lifetime, and particularly after his death, this image became the most well-known portrayal of Petőfi, and was reproduced extensively. It gives a characteristic glimpse of the method of the construction of Petőfi’s Romantic Authorship through symbolic portraits from the 19th century.

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Shelley’s Inkstand

Percy Shelley's Inkstand

Contributor: Anna Mercer

Location: London Metropolitan Archives (Keats House Collection)

Description: This inkstand is held in the London Metropolitan Archives and is part of the Keats House Collection. There are in all 47 ‘Shelleyan’ objects owned by Keats House. Some are duplicates; for example, there are several engravings of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s grave. There are a few first editions, including Frankenstein (1818) and Prometheus Unbound (1820). There are a number of interesting letters, including a letter from Percy Bysshe Shelley to Thomas Medwin from 22 August 1821. Perhaps the most impressive treasure of all is the manuscript of Mary Shelley’s ‘The Heir of Mondolfo’. Another item, a mirror which supposedly once belonged to Percy Bysshe Shelley, is now missing, ‘stolen from the ground floor hall at Keats House between 3 and 3.15pm on 4 May 1994’. And then there is this inkstand. The label that accompanies it says: ‘Shelley’s Inkstand. Said by Claire Clairmont to be the inkstand used by Shelley when writing “Queen Mab”’. In the catalogue entry, there isn’t much else. It is no longer on display in the museum but has been in storage at the London Metropolitan Archives for several years, possibly several decades. What initially appears quite a simple, uncomplicated object (are inkstands not very common in literary museums?), actually provokes new questions about the Shelley circle and its mythologisation. Moreover, the fact that Shelley’s inkstand is present in the collection of John Keats’s former home might invite us to ask how relics associated with the second-generation Romantics are preserved in specific locations, further uniting them as a distinct group of writers.

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The town of Joigny, Burgundy

An image of buildings and trees in Joigny, Burgundy

Contributor: Gillian Dow

Location: Private collection

Description: The town of Joigny sits on the banks of the river Yonne, in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. An hour and a half south of Paris, Joigny is a pretty town, which markets itself modestly as one of a hundred ‘plus beaux detours de France.’ The town’s interest, for a scholar of Romanticism, lies in its connections to Frances Burney (1752-1840), author of Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796). Her husband General d’Arblay was born in Joigny (i). In late 1800, seven years after he married Burney, d’Arblay learned that he had been removed from the proscribed list of French emigrés. He was hopeful that he would be able to recover £1,000 from his French property near Joigny, as well as secure a military pension. He left England – where he had been living in exile since 1792 – for Paris. Somewhat against her better judgement, on the 14 April 1802, Burney followed. She was accompanied by their son Alex, then seven, and by six-year-old Adrienne de Chavagnac, a ward of the Lockes of Norbury Park, who was returning to France to be reunited with her émigré parents. Burney did not return to England for over a decade, but when she did, in August 1812, she had the manuscript of what was to become her last, markedly European, novel The Wanderer (1814) in her possession.

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Frédéric Chopin’s grand piano

Chopin's Piano

Contributor: Mirosława Modrzewska

Location: Teatr Wielki – Opera Narodowa (the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera)

Description: The story of Frédéric Chopin’s piano is part of Polish Romantic cultural heritage. It has been passed down in a poem by Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821-1883) entitled Fortepian Szopena. Norwid wrote the poem in the years 1863-64 and it refers to an authentic event in Warsaw, which took place on September 19th, 1863 during the Polish insurrection against Russian occupation.  Continue reading “Frédéric Chopin’s grand piano”

Dante’s Bones Rediscovered and Exhibited

A showcase containing Dante's Bones

Contributor: Harald Hendrix

Location: Centro Dantesco dei Frati Conventuali, Ravenna [showcase]

Description: On May 27, 1865, in the small provincial town of Ravenna, a spectacular event occurred that made headlines all over the world, from New York to the East Indies. The mortal remains of one of the greatest poets that had ever lived, Dante Alighieri, were discovered after having been lost over some 350 years. Coinciding with the celebrations marking the sixth centenary of his birth — in Ravenna and well beyond, particularly in Florence — this remarkable event fueled unprecedented curiosity, coercing the local authorities to publicly exhibit Dante’s bones and the simple wooden coffin that had contained them for centuries. To such purpose this crystal showcase was used. During one month, from May 27 until June 26 1865, the public was allowed to see what remained of Italy’s national poet, an experience never to be repeated again. While satisfying the audience’s urge to establish a direct connection to a man as highly venerated as Dante was, the exhibition of his bones also revealed something about the cult of the author. As a consequence, this episode of hero worship signals a paradigmatic instance in a field where popular curiosity, scientific interest and concerns on heritage conservation meet and clash.

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The decanters Samuel Rogers gave to Lord Byron

The decanters Samuel Rogers gave to Lord Byron

Contributor: Charlotte May

Location: Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire

Description: This set of glasses and decanters has been on permanent display at George Gordon, Lord Byron’s ancestral home, Newstead Abbey, since 1974. It is believed that after Byron’s death in 1824 they came into the possession of Byron’s half-sister Augusta Leigh and were passed down her family line. A previous curator of Newstead Abbey, Haidee Jackson, traced the set’s provenance to an auction in 1906, where they were sold as: ‘Mahogany inlaid Spirit Case, containing four decanters and twelve glasses, with engraved on lid containing coronet and NB, and on inside lid an MS. Memorandum in Augusta Leigh’s autograph, “From Samuel Rogers to my Brother”’. The gift epitomises the many social transactions which characterized and cultivated the relationship between Byron and the then celebrated banker-poet Samuel Rogers (1763-1855) as fellow-poets and celebrities.

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