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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Robert Burns’s ‘Kilmarnock’ Edition (1786)

Frontispiece of Burns's Kilmarnock Edition

Contributor: Gerard Carruthers

Location: University of Glasgow Library

Description: John Wilson of Kilmarnock, the printer of Robert Burns’ debut work, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), produced only 612 copies, of which this copy is one of the only 84 that survive worldwide. Over half of these are now located in North America (Young & Scott, 2017). This should come as no surprise: an edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect appeared in the United States of America as early as 1788 (first in Philadelphia, and then in New York). In contrast, it might be tempting to think that Burns must have had a comparatively limited effect on mainland Europe given that only one surviving copy of this book survives there, in the Fondation Martin Bodmer Library, in Cologny, Switzerland. The provenance of this particular copy is something of a mystery, but the story of Burns and Europe is less obscure than it might suggest.

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Lord Byron’s Autograph at the Castle of Chillon

Byron's Autograph at Chillon Castle

Contributor: Patrick Vincent

Location: Chillon Castle, Avenue de Chillon 21 · CH 1820 Veytaux · Switzerland

Description: 

Au milieu de tous les noms obscurs qui égratignent et encombrent la pierre, il reluit seul en trait de feu. J’ai plus pensé à Byron qu’au prisonnier. [In the midst of all the obscure names which scar and clutter the stone, his alone glows with fire. I thought more of Byron than of the imprisoned.] Gustave Flaubert (1845)

As enthusiastic readers of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Hélöise (1761), Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley sailed around Lake Geneva from 22 to 30 June 1816, visiting settings made famous by the novel, including Chillon Castle at the eastern end of Lake Geneva (or Leman), on Tuesday, June 25, 1816. This first visit inspired Byron’s poem The Prisoner of Chillon, composed in Ouchy two days later on the subject of François Bonnivard (1493-1570), a famous political prisoner held there by the Duke of Savoy between 1530 and 1536. Byron returned to Chillon with his friend John Cam Hobhouse on 18 September 2016, on the first day of their Alpine tour. Louis Simond, who visited Chillon a full year after Byron, on 4 August 1817, was the first to record the presence of Byron’s autograph in the castle’s souterrain, or dungeon, carved into the southern side of the third column, 1.45 meters from the lower edge of the shaft.

The authenticity of this autograph has been a matter of controversy and criticism almost from the very beginning.

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The Golden Horns

The Golden Horns

Contributor: Robert W. Rix

Location: The National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.

Description: In December 1802, Adam Oehlenschläger (1779–1850) published Digte [Poems], a collection of new poetry which is today widely regarded as having inaugurated literary romanticism in the Nordic countries. In this collection, the most famous poem is ‘Guldhornene’ [The Golden Horns], which focuses on two horns made of sheet gold, which had recently been stolen from the Kunstkammer (Royal Collection) at Christiansborg palace, Copenhagen. The two horns were archaeological finds that have since been dated to the early fifth century. They were discovered in Gallehus, southern Denmark, at locations only a few metres apart, in 1639 and in 1734, respectively. The horns were for ceremonial use and had numerous figures (anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and hybrid subjects) embossed on their sides. One of the horns also bore a runic inscription in Elder Futhark. The theft and the subsequent police investigation were followed closely in the press; ‘Guldhornene’ can be situated as part of that national fascination with the loss of these artefacts.

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Two pages from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal

Page from Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journal, 15 April 1802

Page from Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journal. 1802

Contributor: Jeff Cowton

Location: The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere

Description: In 1799, when they were both in their late twenties, William and Dorothy Wordsworth moved to make a new life together in Dove Cottage, Grasmere, UK. In May 1800, William left Grasmere for a short absence and Dorothy decided to write a journal for his ‘pleasure’ when he returned. So began a journal that she continued to write for the next thirty or so months. Four notebooks survive; a fifth, covering most of 1801, is now missing. Written largely within the Dove Cottage household, the journal contains Dorothy’s vivid observations of domestic life, her neighbourhood and the natural world, from the mundane to the extraordinary, from the sixth delivery of the coal, to the remarkable sight of reflections off the lake. As a result, as the UNESCO UK Memory of the World register entry puts it, ‘From the journal we can picture the scene of brother and sister walking, talking, reading and writing together. It is an intimate portrait of a life in a place which, to them, was an earthly paradise.’ It not only provides evidence for the nature of the relationship between brother and sister but for their creative working practices. The two pages shown here offer clues to two mysteries: the genesis of one of the most important of all Romantic poems, known popularly as ‘Daffodils’; and why Dorothy left off writing her Journal.

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A Mourning Dress brought back from Tahiti by Captain James Cook

A Mourning Dress brought back from Tahiti by Captain James Cook

Contributor: Barbara Schaff

Location: Göttingen, Germany

Description: This elaborate mourning dress, or heva, stands out as a particularly magnificent example of Tahitian artisanship among the about 2000 ethnographical objects which were either received as presents or tokens of exchange by Cook or members of his crew during Cook’s three Pacific voyages. It is one of only six complete surviving mourning costumes of its kind and testifies to an elaborate mourning practice, also called a heva, which would, with the coming of Christianity, soon become a thing of the past on Tahiti. Brought back to England, it was purchased by the British Crown from the London dealer in ethnographic specimens, George Humphrey, in 1782. It was then sent on to the ethnographic collection of Göttingen University, where it remains. As the only German university founded by a British king in the context of the Personal Union between Hanover and Britain, the scientific contacts between Göttingen, the Royal Society and the British Crown in the 18th century were excellent, as this handsome gift evidences. Its passage from Tahiti through London and on to Germany was also marked by the impression it made upon the late eighteenth-century cultural imagination. The heva was to become one of the most widely circulated images of Tahitian culture in late eighteenth-century Europe.

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The Toussaint Timepiece: Trophy of War?

Toussaint Louverture Automaton Clock

Contributor: Deirdre Coleman

Location: The Johnston House Museum, East Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Description: The exquisite and costly workmanship of this early-nineteenth century French table clock makes it one of the most eye-catching items in the house museum of The Johnston Collection in East Melbourne, Victoria. Acquired by the Australian antiques dealer William Johnston (1911-1986), and attributed to the leading French-Swiss automata-maker Jean David Maillardet (1768-1834), the figure conforms to a once popular caricature, the Pendule au Nègre fumeur [The Smoking Negro Clock]. But as the controversy generated by the ‘blackamoor’ brooch worn in late 2017 by Princess Michael of Kent demonstrated, exoticized black figures are now considered offensive. What makes this table clock even more challenging and intriguing is the name it was given: ‘Toussaint Louverture’, in reference to the leader of a famous slave-uprising in 1802. Continue reading “The Toussaint Timepiece: Trophy of War?”

A Christmas Entertainment in London, Jan 11th, 1826

Pantomime playbill, 1826, for Harlequin and the Magick Rose: or, Beauty and the Beast, Theatre-Royal, Covent Garden.

Contributor: Nicola J. Watson

Location: Theatre Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Description: Nearly two hundred years ago today, you might have attended this post-Christmas entertainment at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in London. The programme characteristically offered a straight piece (here, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Duenna) but it also included a ‘new, grand & comick’ pantomime staged by the famous composer, arranger and producer of such shows, Charles Farley (1771-1859). As nowadays, pantomime in the Regency was one of the more idiosyncratically and resolutely British forms of national popular theatre and an integral part of Christmas festivities. But, as this playbill suggests, British pantomime also drew heavily upon European literary tradition and theatrical practice, even as it staged Britain’s relation to the rest of the world in topical, patriotic and even imperialist mode.

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The notebook shared by the Shelleys, 1814-1818

Location: Library of Congress, Washington D.C., United States of America

Contributor: Anna Mercer

Description: This is the inside cover of a notebook jointly owned by Percy Bysshe Shelley (PBS), Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (MWS), and Claire Clairmont. It was used by this close-knit group of writers from 1814-18, and is now held in the Library of Congress. The notebook accompanied the Shelleys and Claire on their 1816 travels through Europe, and contains material in all three of their hands, some of which pertains to the composition and publication of MWS’s first novel Frankenstein. Continue reading “The notebook shared by the Shelleys, 1814-1818”

The Cadiz Bomb

Location: Horse Guards, London, United Kingdom

Contributor: Ian Haywood

Description: This strange-looking, even kitsch object stands in a corner of Horse Guards, next to St James’s Park in London. For all its garish and even comic appearance, it is actually Britain’s only public monument to the Peninsular war. It was first unveiled in 1816, but its genesis began in 1812 with the Duke of Wellington’s victory at Salamanca. One consequence of this battle was that Napoleonic forces withdrew from the two-year siege of Cadiz, seat of the Spanish Cortes and the new liberal constitution. To celebrate this liberation, the Cortes gave a huge French mortar as a gift to the Prince Regent (later George IV), requesting only that it be displayed in a public place. The Prince duly obliged and commissioned the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich to build a suitable carriage. Four years and an immense expenditure later, the Cadiz ‘bomb’, as it soon became known, was shown to the public on the Prince’s birthday. Continue reading “The Cadiz Bomb”