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.
Rogers and Byron first met in late 1811. Their friendship began when Rogers resolved a quarrel that threatened a duel between Byron and the Irish lyricist Thomas Moore (1779-1852). The letters and journals of Byron and Rogers both record frequent meetings subsequently, including at Rogers’s house at 22 St James’s Place, a leading literary salon of the time.
Byron’s opinion of Rogers contains two threads: firstly, reverence for a man whom he thought ‘the Grandfather of living Poetry’ (Byron to John Murray, 15 September 1817, BLJ V, p.264), and secondly, disdain of Rogers’s habit of ‘back-biting’ by participating in cruel gossip. Byron’s statement that ‘we are on a wrong poetical system’ in 1817 excludes the work of Rogers, making the case that Rogers was recognized as a poet writing differently to poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron himself (Byron to John Murray, 15 September 1817, BLJ V, p.264). Byron also situates Rogers at the top of ‘Mount Parnassus’ through several references in his letters and journals. On the other hand, Byron was aware of, and often at the receiving end of, Rogers’s ‘back-biting’. In 1820 he sent verses entitled ‘Question and Answer’ to John Murray, prudently suggesting that Murray only share these with a few friends and ‘Admiralty favourites’ (Byron to John Murray, 28 September 1820, BLJ VII, p.181). They were published after Byron’s death, so it is very likely that Rogers eventually heard them:
Eyes of lead-like hue, and gummy;
Carcass pick’d out from some mummy;
Bowels (but they were forgotten,
Save the liver, and that’s rotten);
Skin all sallow, flesh all sodden,
— Form the devil would frighten God in.
Is’t a corpse stuck up for show,
Galvanised at times to go?
With the Scripture in connexion,
New proof of the resurrection?
Vampyre, ghost, or goul, what is it?
I would walk ten miles to miss it.
The answer is Samuel Rogers, and Byron continues to go into detail:
You’re his foe — for that he fears you,
And in absence blasts and sears you:
You’re his friend — for that he hates you,
First caresses, and then baits you —
Darting on the opportunity
When to do it with impunity:
He’s the cancer of his species,
And will eat himself to pieces,—
Plague personified, and famine,—
Devil, whose sole delight is damning.
For his merits, would you know ’em? Once he wrote a pretty Poem.
(‘Lord Byron’s unpublished Poem on Mr. Rogers’, Fraser’s Magazine, Vol. VII, January to June 1833, pp.82-84)
A very pretty piece of back-biting in and of itself.
Despite these tensions, the two men had maintained a surprisingly productive relationship, poetic and financial. In a collaboration rare for either poet, they put out a publication together in 1814. Byron’s anonymous Lara was published with Rogers’s Jacqueline – described by Byron as ‘all grace and softness’ (Byron to Samuel Rogers, 27 June 1814, BLJ IV, pp.133-134). He also advised Byron poetically, including suggesting that Byron suppress the fifth edition of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers in 1815, as it contained critiques of Lord Holland and his Whig circles. Byron did indeed take this advice. Rogers also tried to aid Byron with the failed sale of Newstead Abbey in 1813 and advised him on other financial matters too. He was aware of Byron’s refusal of financial recompense for his copyrights, and in 1816 suggested that Byron give the money that he had turned down for copyrights to William Godwin. Rogers and Byron met for the last time in Bologna in 1821.
There are no references in either Byron’s or Rogers’s letters to the gift of the decanter set, so we do not know exactly when it was made or what event it may commemorate. The glasses and decanters are a symbol of masculine sociability, as they were frequently kept on sideboards in dining rooms for men to use after dinner. They were to be used in a social context, suggesting shared interests and the fantasy of after-dinner intellectual conversation. We may surmise that for Rogers they therefore represented an idea of conversation and intellectual society between poetic peers. Such gift-giving was instrumental in Rogers’s performative intellectual sociability, such as the paintbrushes Rogers sent – and insisted on being recognized for sending – to William Wordsworth and Robert Southey. You can still see the decanters today in Byron’s study in Newstead Abbey. By residing in the collections of one of the most iconic Byronic sites in the world, Rogers’ gift continues to work to place Rogers within Byron’s social and poetic life.
Date: early nineteenth century
Subject: Newstead Abbey, Byron, Samuel Rogers
Media rights: Nottingham City Council
Object type: spirit case
Format: mahogany box
Publisher: Nottingham City Council, Newstead Abbey (permission granted by the curator, Simon Brown)