Byron’s Decoupage Screen

Contributor: Sonia Hofkosh

Location: Newstead Abbey, UK

Description: The catalogue for an auction of “a Collection of Books” advertised as “LATE THE  PROPERTY OF A NOBLEMAN ABOUT TO LEAVE ENGLAND ON A TOUR,” highlights some of the volumes it will include, among them: “The Large Plates to Boydell’s Shakespeare, 2 vol. . . . – Morieri, Dictionnaire Historique, 10 vol. . . . Malcolm’s History of Persia, 2 vol. russia. . . –And some Romaic books of which no other Copies are in this Country.”  It adds, set off from this assorted list of books, “AND A Large Skreen [sic] covered with Portraits of Actors, Pugilists, Representations of Boxing Matches, &c.” The volumes in this collection were far-flung, not unlike the Nobleman about to leave on a tour: he was Lord Byron, the most famous poet in Europe, poised to travel to Switzerland, through Italy, and finally to Greece after signing the deed of separation from his wife in April 1816.  Perhaps even more out of place than the Lord and the “Romaic books of which no other Copies are in this Country,” the large screen singled out for notice on the cover of the catalogue has more than one story to tell about the mobility of the Romantic imagination.

John Murray, Byron’s long-time publisher, bought the screen at the sale for £16 5s 6p, along with a gilt-framed mezzotint of “Jackson, the Pugilist,” a former champion and Byron’s boxing coach, and many volumes from Byron’s varied library. (1) As a piece of furniture with a practical function—to block a draft or designate private space in a room—the large screen is an uncharacteristically domestic object among the wide-ranging books and prints in Byron’s cosmopolitan collection.  But it is also an aesthetic object, a function of and for the imagination; as such it is characteristically Romantic, and especially Byronically so.  Itself an evocative mixed-media library, the screen invites multiple ways of reading within the specificity of its object form.  Currently on view in Byron’s study at Newstead Abbey, this six-foot high, four-paneled folding screen is elaborately decorated on each side with a cut and pasted mosaic of text and images.  In the detailed visual display arranged on its surface, its front-and-back reversibility, and the mode of its production as decoupage, the multiple stories Byron’s screen opens to reading are inseparable from its particular materiality.

One side of the screen depicts a history of the English theater in over one hundred and fifty mezzotints and line engravings of notable actors and actresses, scenes from plays, and representations of monuments, including Garrick’s at Westminster Abbey and one devoted to “The Stage’s Glory.”  If read left to right, like a book, this story begins with two portraits of Shakespeare in the upper corner of the first panel and unfolds to a gallery on the top far right of the last panel devoted to fourteen images of Edmund Kean, costumed for his starring roles and arrayed around contemporary reviews of his performances, many of which Byron would have seen at Drury Lane. The other side, which is visible as the screen is exhibited at Newstead Abbey, presents the world of bare-knuckle prize fighting (officially illegal at the time), including striking full-body images of half-clad boxers in fighting stance densely surrounded by newspaper accounts of famous bouts and biographies of boxers snipped from the pages of Pierce Egan’s Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism (1812).  This side might also be read left to right, but its narrative collage is not constrained by chronology; the many blocks of printed text arranged around the boxers’ bodies resist a strictly sequential reading practice.  Further, Jack Broughton is pasted on the first panel facing as if fighting the earlier champion James Figg (who was his teacher), on the second.  Among the other dominant figures on display, the recent champion Tom Cribb, whom Byron knew, is ironically situated behind Tom Molineaux, the formerly enslaved American boxer who fought and lost to Cribb in 1810 and 1811.  “Gentleman” Jackson, Byron’s boxing coach, stands out on the fourth panel, fully attired and arranged with cheeky humor, his hat covering the groin of the boxer positioned near him as if ready to deliver a blow.

Like a giant scrapbook, the screen’s two sides showcase in recto verso Byron’s fascination with personalities of the playhouse and the boxing ring, suggesting that the first modern celebrity was also a passionate fan.  One way to read both sides together, then, is as a story about the invention of the cult of personality in the Romantic age; an alternative narrative layered into that one as its flipside is the inventiveness of fans whose collective devotion creates and sustains such individual celebrity.  But we do not know that Byron the fan in fact made the screen.  Henry Angelo, Byron’s fencing master who shared rooms with Jackson at 13 Bond Street, claimed in his Reminiscences (1830) that he made it at Byron’s request.  Egan reported in the second volume of Boxiana (1818) that it “cost his Lordship 250 pounds” (502).  Yet some of the captions on the theatre side have been thought to be in Byron’s hand, which would suggest that he may at least have participated in its design. (2)  Let us imagine, then, that after the vigorous sparring with Jackson that Byron records in his journals as one of his daily pleasures, the poet takes off his boxing gloves and picks up his scissors to cut out Reynold’s portrait of Sarah Siddons as The Tragic Muse or a print of James Figg by Hogarth, being careful to cut neatly on the line.  Practiced by skilled craftsmen in Italy and France during the 18th century, decoupage had become a fashionable hobby, especially for women, by Byron’s time.  Marie Antoinette was said to have cut up original engravings by Watteau in her amateur enthusiasm.  The revolution put an end to such excesses in France, but the trend continued into the 19th century in England, where “young ladies often executed a screen as part of their trousseau.” (3) Picking up his scissors after sparring, Byron would move fluently between “the manly art of Boxing” (Egan, 3) and the feminine craft of decoupage.  Though the famous poet cutting up and pasting paper rather than writing on it may be a fantasy, the decoupage screen that moved more than once with Byron also tells a story about how new forms can be assembled and alternate modes of being imagined from fragments of familiar materials, including prescribed logics such as the distinction between celebrity and fandom or between masculine and feminine or art and craft.  Whether created or only commissioned by him, Byron’s screen invites various reading practices—left to right, recto verso, at a distance and close, out of sequence; this singular artifact exemplifies the mobility of the imagination and the power of the object to call it into action.

Creator: Henry Angelo, Lord Byron?

Subject: Lord Byron

Object type: decoupaged screen

Format: decoupage

Media rights: The Murray Collection

Publisher: John Murray

References

  1. For details of the sale, see Peter Cochran’s notes in his transcription of the auction catalogue at https://petercochran.wordpress.com/byron-2/byrons-library/
  2. Elizabeth Stewart-Smith, Lord Byron’s Screen (Mansfield, UK: Reliance Press, 1995), 2
  3. Val Lade, Eighteenth-Century Decoupage: The Definitive Guide (Rozelle, AU: Milner Publishing, 1994), 8-9.