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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Sándor Petőfi’s Wallet

Sándor Petőfi’s Wallet

Contributor: Zsuzsanna Zeke

Location: Petőfi Literary Museum, Károlyi Street 16, 1053-Budapest, Hungary

Description: This leather wallet was given to her husband, the poet Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849), by Júlia Szendrey for a keepsake. It is held in Budapest in the Petőfi Literary Museum, which also houses some of the Hungarian National Poet’s manuscripts, books and relics. A typical Biedermeier souvenir, made of goatskin, lined with silk and decorated with pearl embroidery (Holbein stitch/gobelin), it measures 30 x 15 cm (when open) and contains coins and a pencil with a metal top. On one side there is a chubby, naked putto ’Amor’ flying with a bunch of flowers and the iconographic lettering Petőfi Sándornak Pest 1848 (for Sándor Petőfi [Buda]Pest 1848). On the other side are embroidered laurel branches and the Hungarian national colours, together with a line from Petőfi’s poem Talpra Magyar versért (‘Rise up, Magyar’). There is a clear tension between the two sides of the object.

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Every House of the Ant-Hill on the Plain: Richard Horwood’s London

Section from Horwood's Plan showing Westminster and the City of London

Contributor: Matthew Sangster

Location: British Library, London

Description: Richard Horwood’s vast PLAN of the Cities of LONDON and WESTMINSTER the Borough of SOUTHWARK, and PARTS adjoining Shewing every HOUSE, a project commenced in 1790 and finally completed in 1799, touches upon many suggestive contradictions between Romantic ideologues and the print culture of the period in which these were theorised. The Plan is deeply Romantic in terms of its reach and ambition: a house-by-house map of the largest city in Europe surveyed and engraved by one man over a period of nearly a decade. Horwood himself was keen to stress the novelty and grandeur of his endeavour: his prospectus described the Plan as an undertaking ‘ON A PRINCIPLE NEVER BEFORE ATTEMPTED’ and when writing to the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce in an attempt to secure a premium for his work, he played up the physical and mental effort it had required:

The execution of it has cost me nine years severe labour and indefatigable perseverance; and these years formed the most valuable part of my life. I took every angle; measured almost every line; and after that, plotted and compared the whole work. The engraving, considering the immense mass of work, is, I flatter myself, well done.

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The Fiddle that taught Robert Burns his manners

William Gregg's Fiddle

Contributor: Cameron Morin

Location: Alloway, Ayrshire (Scotland)

Description: This beautiful, good-as-new instrument, made of pine and sporting a flower-like red, green and black design on the back, is displayed in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway, as ‘the fiddle of William Gregg’. Born in 1766 in Ayr, Gregg learned to play the vioin at a very young age, eventually becoming what was called a “Dance Tutor” or a “Master of Manners”, based in Tarbolton, Ayrshire. In 1779, he accepted a most peculiar pupil: Robert Burns.

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The engagement ring given by John Keats to Fanny Brawne

The engagement ring given by John Keats to Fanny Brawne

Contributor: Anna Mercer

Location: Fanny Brawne’s Room, Keats House, Hampstead

Description: This is the engagement ring given to Fanny Brawne by the poet John Keats in 1819, probably in sometime in the Autumn of that year. (1) The ring was probably made in the late eighteenth century, and the stone is almandine – a type of garnet – set in a gold openwork scrolled shouldered hoop. It was inexpensive, reflecting Keats’s financial problems, which created anxiety for the poet before his illness the following year. (2) The Historical and Descriptive Guide to Keats House Museum (1934) suggests the ring was worn by Fanny until her death in 1865. (3) It was left to Fanny’s daughter Margaret, who never married. She then left it to her niece Frances Ellis (née Brawne-Lindon) who gifted the ring to Keats House. In 1925, Keats’s old lodgings at Wentworth Place in Hampstead were made into a memorial to the poet and became Keats House Museum. The ring is one of 13 relics relating to Fanny Brawne.

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‘Les Adieux de l’Hermite de Dronning-Gaard’

‘Les Adieux de l’Hermite de Dronning-Gaard’

Contributor: Cian Duffy

Location: Næsseslottet, 136 Dronninggårds Allé 136, DK-2840, Holte, Denmark

Description: This monument, tucked away in the gardens of the Dronninggård estate, northwest of Copenhagen, is, remarkably, the source of an essentially unknown poem by James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), the influential essayist, critic, journalist and poet, and the leader of the so-called ‘Cockney’ school of English Romanticism. Designed by the Danish neoclassical sculptor Johannes Wiedewelt (1731-1802), the monument features a twenty-nine line poem in French by the Dutch cavalry officer Jean Frédéric Henry de Drevon (1734-97), inscribed on a tablet of Norwegian marble. De Drevon’s lines are the source for Hunt’s poem, which was first published by John Carr (1772-1832) in A Northern Summer, in 1805.

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Chateaubriand’s Cedar

Contributor: Bernard Degout

Location: Domaine départemental de la Vallée-aux-Loups – maison de Chateaubriand

Description: This cedar of Lebanon (cedrus libani) was planted by Chateaubriand in the park of La Vallée-aux-Loups, which he laid out during the eleven years he stayed in the hamlet of Aulnay (1807-1817). Tracing broad pathways, flattening a hill, introducing “thousands” of green trees which had been gifted by friends or acquired from renowned horticulturists, the author amassed here, according to the document which he produced for the sale of his estate, “the most complete collection of planted trees, both exotic and natural, in the whole of France”. He also grouped trees which reminded him of his journeys to America (1791) and the Orient (1806-1807) around the perimeter of the central field. The park of La Vallée-aux-Loups, created by a writer-cum-traveller, is thus a literary park. But, in a way, it is also more than this.

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Plate from the ‘Frog Service’

Oval, cream coloured earthenware plate from the 'Frog Service', painted with a view of the lake at West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.

Contributor: Elizabeth McKellar

Location: London, Victoria and Albert Museum, British Galleries, Room 118; The Wolfson Gallery, case 3

Description: This dish, for serving meat or vegetables, held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, forms part of the ‘Frog Service’, a huge 50-person dinner and dessert service. It was commissioned by Catherine the Great from Josiah Wedgwood in 1773 and reflects Catherine’s passion for English landscape aesthetics and gardening. It exemplifies one way that such Anglophone tastes travelled across Europe at this time.

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Fingal’s Cave

Fingal’s Cave in Staffa': engraving by Thomas Major

Contributor: Nigel Leask

Location: National Trust, Isle of Staffa, Inner Hebrides, Scotland; Thomas Pennant, Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides in 1772, 2 vols (2nd ed., London 1776), f.p.301. ‘Fingal’s Cave in Staffa’: engraving by Thomas Major, based on a drawing by James Miller.

Description: In the late summer of 1772, just a year or so after his return from exploring the Pacific with Captain Cook, Joseph Banks mounted his own expedition to Iceland via the Hebrides. On 13th August, Banks and his party, including the artist James Miller, explored, measured, and drew Staffa. The account we have is excerpted from Banks’ journal, edited and published in his friend Thomas Pennant’s Tour in Scotland 1772; poor weather had prevented Pennant from landing on the island earlier that summer, so Banks’ account supplied that deficiency. Banks claimed to have discovered ‘a cave, the most magnificent, I suppose, that has ever been described by travellers.’ ‘We asked the name of it,’ writes Banks. ‘Said our guide, “The cave of Fhinn”. “What is Fhinn?” said we. “Fhinn Mac Coul, whom the translator of Ossian’s Works has called Fingal.” How fortunate that in this cave we should meet with the remembrance of that chief, whose existence, as well as that of the whole Epic poem is almost doubted in England.’ To this account may be traced the birth of one of Scotland’s leading tourist destinations in the romantic era.

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