Contributor: Alice Rhodes
Location: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield, UK
Description: Although best known for his careers as poet and doctor (or perhaps for his grandson Charles, who would go on to lay claim to the Darwin name in the public consciousness) Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was also a prolific inventor proposing apparatuses of every kind from systems of canal locks to a steam powered chariot. Many of these, like the “Artificial Bird” pictured above, can be found in the commonplace book which Darwin kept between 1776 and 1787, now housed at Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield. There is no record of the bird leaving the pages of the commonplace book until its reconstruction by Erasmus Darwin House in 2013, yet Darwin’s bird is more than a flight of fancy. Nor was it a mere toy or curiosity. It can be read as an instrument or experiment through which Darwin gained knowledge of both physics and avian physiology, and it hatched from a long European history of creating such mechanisms.
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Contributor: Delia da Sousa Correa
Location: Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry.
Description: Purchased on 22 November 1869 for the 50th birthday of the novelist George Eliot by her partner George Henry Lewes, this Broadwood piano was delivered to a grieving household. Lewes’s middle son, Thornfield, had returned from farming in Africa with a painful illness and had died, aged 25, just a month previously. It was a period when neither Eliot, who was writing Middlemarch, nor Lewes, were able to work. That the piano was purchased then, indicates that it represented something of deep significance. Not surprisingly, no flurry of references to the new piano fills Eliot’s correspondence at this date. Fittingly however, the piano has an implied presence as a source of solace a decade later when, on the first anniversary of Lewes’s own death, a line in Eliot’s diary for 8 Sept 1879 reads simply: ‘Darwin. Schubert’ (Journals, 180). ‘Darwin’ may denote a visitor, or his books; Schubert she must have been playing at the piano. Eliot’s journal further records that she had ‘Touched the piano for the first time’ after Lewes’ death on 27th May (Journals, 175). This piano is, however, representative not just of the personal importance for George Eliot of Romantic music but of its significance for numerous areas of Victorian culture in Britain.
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Contributor: Francesca Benatti
Location: Piazza Santa Croce, Florence
Description: The Basilica of Santa Croce is a late 13th-century Gothic church in Florence, probably designed by architect Arnolfo di Cambio. Home to the Franciscan order in Florence, it contains significant artworks by, among others, Giotto, Donatello, Brunelleschi and Vasari. From the mid 15th century onwards, Santa Croce became the burial place of some of the most prominent literary, artistic and scientific figures from Tuscany and later, the rest of Italy. In the early nineteenth century, it boasted the tombs of Niccolò Machiavelli, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Galileo Galilei and Vittorio Alfieri, the latter completed by Antonio Canova in 1810. These burials attracted the attention of Romantic authors across Europe, who variously interpreted them as metaphors of the state of Italy and for the nature of artistic fame.
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Contributor: Cian Duffy
Location: Sicily, Italy (37°45.3N’ 14°59.7’E)
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.
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Contributor: Diego Saglia
Location: Istituzione Biblioteca Classense, Ravenna (Italy)
Description: This sizeable travelling chest (48.2 x 80.7 x 19.2 cm) belonged to Countess Teresa Guiccioli, née Gamba (1800-73), the co-protagonist of what Iris Origo called Lord Byron’s ‘last attachment’. A little battered, perhaps, it hides its secrets well. Read carefully, it nonetheless expresses continuity with systems of aristocratic identity construction familiar from the ancien régime, describes the consumerist self-styling of the travelling woman, and testifies to its central role in Teresa’s construction of her relationship with Byron.
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Contributor: Jonathan Falla
Location: Old Military Road, by Dunkeld, Perth & Kinross PH8 0JR, Scotland UK
Overlooking a small but dramatic waterfall complete with leaping salmon, there stands this curious stone gazebo or folly, reached by a pleasant woodland walk. Originally named the Hermitage, as ‘Ossian’s Hall’ this became one of the most visited sites in all Romantic Scotland.
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Contributor: Jeff Cowton
Location: The Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere
Description: This is a copy of the 1822 edition of William Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes in its original board covers, containing an account of an ascent of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike. Five hundred copies of the Guide were printed, selling for 5/- (25p) each. This copy is of a size that could be carried on a tour. Wordsworth’s Guide was deeply influenced by his travels in Europe, in particular his experience in 1790, when he (then twenty years old) walked through France to the Alps with his friend Robert Jones. The history of this account of the ascent of Scafell Pike suggests in addition how Rousseau’s influential depictions of the Alps affected how the landscape of the Lakes was experienced.
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Contributor: Asker Pelgrom
Location: Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art, Luxembourg
Description: In 1845 the Dutch King William II (1840-1849) commissioned a series of canvasses from the famous Dutch landscape painter Barend Cornelis Koekkoek (1803-1862). The artist had finished eight of the nine paintings originally planned when production was interrupted by the king’s unexpected death in March 1849. The series depicts Luxembourg landscapes, showing green hills, farmhouses and forests and, at the centre of each scene, a castle – in some cases in ruins. The existing canvasses depict Beaufort (3), Schoenfels, Berg, Hollenfels and Larochette (2); the last painting should have depicted a ‘View of the town of Mersch or of the Mersch valley’. Koekkoek’s choice of Luxembourgish themes was quite exceptional. Romantic landscape artists in the Low Countries rather sought the picturesque in the Belgian Ardennes or the valleys of the Rhine, Moselle or Ahr and Koekkoek typically followed this practice. His series of Luxembourg landscapes is also stylistically distinct from the rest of his oeuvre. His compositions usually show ‘pleasant lies’: ‘a selection of various pretty elements […] constituting a whole that does not correspond to any existing reality’, but in this case they are striking for their topographical accuracy. This painting, and the series as a whole, can therefore only be explained taking into consideration the political and private needs of Koekkoek’s patron, which turn out to be surprisingly international in contour.
Continue reading “Romantic ruins in a Luxembourg landscape: William II and B.C. Koekkoek’s View of the Castle of Larochette (1848)”
Contributor: Jean-Marie Fournier
Location: Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Description: Now an exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, Sultan Tippoo’s « Man-Tiger organ » is simultaneously an automaton, a sculpture in the Gothic taste, a musical instrument, an instance of popular craftsmanship in the spirit of the Enlightenment, and an elaborate practical joke. The object enjoyed great popularity in its day, celebrated in penny broadsides, chapbooks and newspapers, so that its fame was well-established long before it reached England. When it did arrive in Britain in 1800, it was exhibited first in the Tower of London, and then in East India House, Leadenhall Street. There it was seen by both William Blake and John Keats.
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Contributor: Tim Fulford
Location: The Wye Valley/The Royal Institution
Description: In 1800 a man inspired by Wordsworth’s visionary poetry made a trip to Tintern Abbey. Based in Bristol, he was a friend of Coleridge and Southey and was in the midst of editing Lyrical Ballads for the press; he also wrote nature verse in his own right. He was employed, however, not as a poet but as a scientific enquirer, and on his excursion to the river Wye he was armed with an improved eudiometer—the best instrument for measuring the proportion of oxygen, the gas first isolated by Joseph Priestley, in the atmosphere. ‘The Eudiometer’, he wrote, ‘that I have lately used is a very simple & commodious one – It consists of a tube about 5 inches long containing 200 grains of water – The space between the 140 & 180 grains is graduated. – This tube is emptied of water in an atmosphere when you wish to know its composition & plunged into a solution of muriate or sulphate of iron impregnated with Nitrous gas.’(1) He was Humphry Davy…
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