A Lock of Goethe’s Hair
(cut on 2nd March 1823, now in the Taylor Institution Library, Oxford)
Clear as melt-water, the March air flows into the room,
Carrying the delicate notes of the birds’ first thin calls
In that garden in Weimar. The Herr Geheimrat, propped high
On his bulwark of pillows, the doctor dismissed at last,
Waits for his barber. Time to be tidy and kempt,
Fit for the salon, although his condition is still
Fragile as Meissen, and weaker than camomile tea.
The cold blade slides down his neck, gliding, and with it there falls,
As his dead hair scatters, the years of his well-worn past –
Italy, Frankfurt, the court and the theatre, the verse –
`One lock – as a favour?’ Yes – far in the past, those old Greeks,
They cut off a curl of their hair as a gift to the dead,
And the Roman boys severed a strand at their coming-of-age…
Outside, Frau von Goethe, her wholesome cheeks shiny and scrubbed
As a winter apple, goes bustling, shuffles and scolds.
Excellent woman! He thinks of Charlotte von Stein –
Her pale smile, ironic, her manners, that filigree cage
Of etiquette, trapping a passion that fluttered and cried…
Whose are those voices? Next door, or much farther away,
One, like a violin, springs in a light curving arc
While Mozart’s viola responds in its full rolling tone:
`…cut from the head of the poet as he convalesced…’
The barber is gleaning the scatterings in a white towel,
Murmurs excuses – but under the crop that remains
New rhythms and phrases are stirring, as down in the park
The tentative fronds are uncurling around the oak’s roots.
Yes, one slip of hair is a sacrifice he can afford,
In thanks to the Fates who have spared him their shears – just for now.
by Susan Reynolds
Read the blog post on Goethe’s Hair here.
Contributor: Serena Baiesi
Location: Surrey Gaol, Horsemonger Lane, London. Detail from Edmund Blunden, ed., Leigh Hunt. A Biography (Archon Books, 1930)
Description: In 1812 Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) wrote that the Prince Regent was a violator of his word and a disreputable libertine in an article published in The Examiner — a radical newspaper he edited with his brother John. As a result he was sentenced to prison for two years from 1813 until 1815 for seditious libel and sent to Surrey Gaol, Horsemonger Lane. After a month spent in a small dwelling, Hunt was moved to a two-room suite in the prison infirmary. Here Hunt spent his days reading, writing, meeting with friends who constantly visited him, and enjoying the company of his wife and children. Even though during his prison days Hunt suffered several nervous attacks, characterised by palpitations, headaches, and uncontrollable anxiety, he describes this period in his autobiography, in many letters, and in reported conversations, as very convivial. Secluded in prison, Hunt became very productive, constantly contributing to The Examiner, writing poetry later collected in Foliage, composing the long poem The Story of Rimini, and beginning his drama The Descent of Liberty. He also became the centre of a very animated literary and liberal intellectual circle, which became legendary as a model for Romantic intellectual sociability.
Continue reading “Leigh Hunt’s Parlour at Surrey Gaol”
Contributor: Cian Duffy
Location: Gulf of Naples, Italy (40°49N’ 14°26’E)
Description: Located just outside the Italian city of Naples, the volcano Vesuvius was one of the most spectacular instances of the ‘natural sublime’ typically visited as part of the Grand Tour of Europe. Vesuvius was in a more-or-less constant state of activity throughout the Romantic period and had a least six significant eruptions between 1774 and 1822. In a letter of December 1818, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) describes it as ‘after the glaciers [of the Alps] the most impressive expression of the energies of the nature I ever saw’ and his response is visible in the volcanic landscapes and imagery of Prometheus Unbound (1820). (1) Influential Romantic-period travel writing, such as A Classical Tour through Italy (1812) by John Chetwode Eustace (1762-1815) and Remarks […] During an Excursion in Italy (1813) by Joseph Forsyth (1763-1815), offered extended descriptions of the volcano and its environs for the increasing numbers of tourists who visited as well as information about the latest speculations in natural philosophy. Eruptions of Vesuvius were made the subject of numerous paintings, including celebrated works by the British artists Joseph William Mallord Turner (1775-1851) and Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97), by the German Jacob Philipp Hackert (1737-1807), and by the Frenchman Pierre-Jacques Volaire (1729-99), who died in Naples. They were often depicted in panoramic exhibitions in London and other European capitals – and, of course, they feature in countless works of fiction, poetry, and drama by authors across Europe. Arguably, Vesuvius drove the explosion (if the pun may be forgiven) in the use of volcanoes and volcanic eruptions in Romantic-period cultural texts right across Europe as metaphors and similes for everything from poetic inspiration to political revolution. Hence Lord Byron (1788-1824) no doubt had Vesuvius in mind when he lamented, in the thirteenth canto of Don Juan (1823), what he saw as the clichéd ubiquity of volcanic imagery: ‘I hate to hunt down a tired Metaphor –/ So let the often-used Volcano go;/ Poor thing! how frequently be me and others/ It hath been stirred up, till its Smoke quite smothers’ (ll. 285-8).
Continue reading “Mount Vesuvius”
Contributor: Nicholas Halmi
Location: University College, Oxford, UK
Description: This object is a striking marble and bronze sculptural ensemble commemorating Percy Bysshe Shelley and displayed since 1893 at University College, Oxford, from which the poet had been expelled in 1811. Commissioned in 1890 by Lady Jane Shelley, the widow of Percy’s and Mary’s son Percy Florence—the only one of their children who lived to adulthood—the work was created by the English sculptor Edward Onslow Ford (1852–1901), a practitioner of the naturalism characteristic of Britain’s so-called ‘New Sculpture’ movement. The work consists of two visually contrasting elements, an idealized effigy in white Carrara marble and an allegorical base in dark green bronze. The marble, a life-size nude lying on its side, represents the drowned Shelley after he had washed ashore at Viareggio in July 1822. His body, reposing on a pale-green marble slab, is supported by two winged lions, between whom, and in front of Shelley, sits the half-nude figure of a mourning Muse—also in bronze—leaning heavily on her broken lyre. Both the lions and the Muse rest upon a large dark maroon marble plinth labelled (on bronze plaques) with the poet’s surname and two phrases from stanza 42 of Adonais, his elegy to John Keats: ‘IN DARKNESS AND IN LIGHT’ and ‘HE IS MADE ONE WITH NATURE’. Originally Shelley’s head was adorned with a gilt-bronze wreath—a ludicrous embellishment that can only have detracted from the statue’s undeniably arresting appearance. A fragment of this wreath survives in the college archives.
Continue reading “The Shelley Memorial”
Contributor: Jorge Bastos da Silva
Location: Casa-Museu Medeiros e Almeida, Lisbon
Description: This state-of-the-art pocket watch was commissioned by General Jean-Andoche Junot, the commander of the first invasion of Portugal by Napoleon’s armies, from the famous Swiss clockmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet. After Junot’s death, the watch was sold back to Breguet and eventually came into possession of Junot’s enemy, the Duke of Wellington, as a gift from a comrade-in-arms. The watch thus suffered radical repurposing by a roundabout way, becoming a virtual war trophy. Its story points to the relevance of tracing the transit of objects to understanding the social and material culture of the Romantic period.
Continue reading “The Junot-Wellington Watch”
Contributor: Nicola J. Watson
Location: Current whereabouts of object unknown
Description: In February 2008, this object came up for auction at a sale of selected contents of Clothall House, Hertfordshire and of items from The Savoy Hotel run by Bonham’s Auctioneers in London. The auction catalogue described it as ‘A 19th century gilt bronze European Tour souvenir model of ‘Petrarch’s inkstand.’ It sold for £60 to a private collector, a figure that registers its catastrophic decline in cultural import since the date of its manufacture, sometime between the first half of the nineteenth century when Petrarch’s reputation was running high on the tides of Romantic taste and the 1870s when such items were being mass-produced. At the outset of the century, such an item would have been made to special commission to describe an intellectual or sentimental affinity. In brokering and making visible an imaginary conversation between the dead and the living, ‘Petrarch’s inkstand’ was one of a number of inkstands that constructed a transnational notion of Romantic posterity.
Continue reading “Petrarch’s Inkstand”
Contributor: Kirsty Archer-Thompson F.S.A. Scot
Location: Abbotsford, Melrose, Scotland
Description: This item is a mahogany-framed elbow chair with a sloping scooped back, of the type often found in late-Georgian libraries. The seat itself has always been assumed to be real leather, but in fact it may be a very early example of imitation leather, made of layers of pulped paper coated with preservative. The seat is deep, even for a man of some stature, and it is a curiously relaxed choice to combine with the versatile architect’s desk that Walter Scott commissioned from Gillows of Lancaster in 1810. One cannot help but see a seating position more conducive to thinking or reading rather than hours spent at ‘the task’ of writing voluminous histories and novels. Although a plain piece of furniture overall, the chair has some reeded detail on the front of the frame and down the tapered legs. Evidence of a sparsely buttoned back survive in a series of small pin holes and clumps of threads, with none of the true buttons now remaining. The seat is heavily worn and the whole piece exudes an aura of robust rusticity. The maker of the chair and the exact time of its purchase is unknown, although it is likely to have been purchased from William Trotter of Edinburgh. The piece was certainly in position in Scott’s Study at Abbotsford by 1826 and may have been relocated to the property, alongside the desk, after the sale of the family’s Edinburgh home following the financial crash of 1825-6.
Almost as soon as the interior of Scott’s Abbotsford Study was finished in 1825, there was an intense interest in the space as the place from which his stories emanated, and this enthusiasm naturally settled most enthusiastically on his desk and chair as a kind of secular altar. As early as 1826, in The Border Tourist, we find the author making himself comfortable in Scott’s elbow chair where he tells us the writer is still “accustomed to sit.” Musing whilst surveying the writing paraphernalia surrounding him, he declares that future generations will “look on with an interest approaching adoration.” This was prophetic of one aspect of Scott’s transition into a cult figure of the Romantic movements across Europe and beyond.
Continue reading “Sir Walter Scott’s Elbow Chair: The Seat of Power”
Contributor: Małgorzata Wichowska
Location: Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature, Warsaw, Poland
Description: This tie pin is part of the Mickiewicz Collection, the most important collection in Warsaw’s Museum of Literature, itself named after the poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), a founding figure in Polish Romanticism. The historical-literary museum’s mission is to gather manuscripts, books, works of art, photographs, and mementos relating to Poland’s diverse literary and artistic heritage of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Made of gold, the tie pin is in the form of a four-stringed classical lyre, decorated with diamonds set in silver. Tradition has it that the tie pin was a gift from the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) to Adam Mickiewicz.
Continue reading “Adam Mickiewicz’s Tie Pin”
Contributor: Emese Asztalos
Location: Private collection, Hungary
Description: When the poet, János Erdélyi (1814 – 1868) left Hungary in the mid-1840s to join a former pupil on his Grand Tour, he took this Travelling Box with him. The box could be held in its owner’s lap throughout the journey, and it was also appropriate to use it in a comfortless guesthouse. It has several functions: it is a writing-desk, toilet-table, treasure chest and a kind of workplace, from which Erdélyi sent reports about his travels to Hungarian journals. Beside papers, inks, correspondence, and pens, it could hide toilet accessories and secret belongings. The mirror could help with shaving, which was very important for Hungarian nobles or intellectuals, who were especially proud of their beards.
Continue reading “János Erdélyi’s Travelling Box”
Contributor: Robert Samuels
Location: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Description: You can see the ‘Messiah’ violin today. It is on display at the Ashmolean Museum as the centrepiece of their collection of musical instruments. It was made in 1716 by the most famous of all violin makers, Antonio Stradivari of Cremona. It is, indeed, a ‘Stradivarius’, a ‘Strad’, the most perfect example from the hands of the man reputed to make the most beautiful-sounding instruments the world has ever known.
You can see it today. You can see it, but you cannot hear it. No-one can. The violin rests in its glass case, mute symbol of perfection in sound, unplayed, forever. It has never been played. It was kept by Stradivari himself in his workshop, its perfection such that he wished never to part with it. Kept after him by his son Paolo, sold on Paolo’s deathbed in 1775 to Count Cozio di Salabue, a collector who never touched it. Bought from him by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, a violin maker and collector who kept it under lock and key, but told everyone of its worth, causing it to be named ‘Le Messie’, because like the Messiah its coming was eagerly awaited but never seen. It may possibly have been heard, once, at the London World Exhibition of 1862, where, in a competition organised by himself, he entered an unidentified violin anonymously, which was declared superior to all others played against it. The Messiah did eventually come to London, exhibited in 1871 at the Exhibition to celebrate the opening of the Royal Albert Hall. But still it was not heard. Bought at last by the London dealers W. E. Hill and sons, it was those sons, Arthur and Alfred, who quite rightly bequeathed it at last to a museum where its perfection could remain unchallenged forever.
The mythical status of this unheard and yet peerless instrument is of course a Romantic trope. While all of the history recounted above is true, it is also couched in terms which betray its Romantic intent.
Continue reading “The ‘Messiah’ Violin”