Description: Samuel Crosthwaite’s picturesque view of Cockermouth in Cumbria works hard to underplay the transformative effects of the transition from water to steam power that took place in the first half of nineteenth century Britain. At the centre of the painting sits Derwent Mill with its distinctive chimney stack. The correspondence between the smoke drifting to the left of the picture and the storm-darkened clouds to the right, set in pleasing contrast with the verdant fields and sun-dazzled water in the foreground, gives the assurance that human intervention in the scene is in keeping with the natural order of things. But as aesthetic propriety labours to reassure that all is well with the world, a contemporary viewer might have recalled the time when the mills drew clean, renewable energy from the rivers Derwent and Cocker, beneath skies unsullied by noxious fumes.
Description: In 1797, a marble monument to David Garrick was erected in Westminster Abbey on the west wall of Poets’ Corner. Charles Lamb encountered the monument in 1811 and became so rankled by it that he authored, in protest, one of the signature critical essays of the Romantic period: “On Garrick, and Acting” (1811), better known by its revised title “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare: Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Representation” (1818). Lamb’s essay—famous for its claim that to stage Shakespeare’s plays is to alter and diminish them—not only opposes assertions such as Denis Diderot’s that “A play is not so much to be read as to be performed” (Entretiens sur Le Fils naturel, 1757) but also objects to the cultural elevation of the art of acting that the Garrick monument symbolizes. Just years after Garrick monument was installed in the Abbey, Lamb marshaled a set of arguments against it: for book over body, poetic vision over theatrical spectacle, and individual readership over audience membership. Seen through Lamb’s eyes, the Garrick monument appears as a vulgarising throwback, and its monumental continuity actively counter-Romantic.
Location: National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington. Gift of Molly F. Sheppard
Description: An encounter in Rome in 1853 between the Brownings and the American sculptor Harriet Hosmer resulted in a life-long friendship and in this plaster cast of the poets’ hands, a year after Hosmer had become apprenticed to the English John Gibson in Rome. The Brownings had married in secret in London in 1846 and eloped to Italy, where they settled in Florence. The life-casting of their hands, subsequently joined into one compact piece, is a peculiar artwork, metonymic, truncated, indexical. The imprint of Elizabeth’s aging nails, thin veins, and atrophied right hand resting in Robert’s larger, firmer hand conveys the texture of skin and bone structure, giving the modern spectator a sense of being unusually close to the two long-dead poets: Elizabeth was 47 years old, Robert 41, when the casts were taken, and the eeriness of these hands, detached from their respective bodies, make us wonder about the purpose of this piece of sculpture.
Description: In 1797, renowned philosopher and author, Mary Wollstonecraft sat for her last portrait made by John Opie, portrait painter to the royal family as well as a number of other influential Britons. Of the different portraits Wollstonecraft would sit for, this one stands out due to its serene expression. Compared to Opie’s first portrait of her in 1790-1, in which Wollstonecraft is holding an open book in her hands, gazing straight into the eyes of the beholder, the latter portrait is radically different. Holding no objects, only bearing the colors of black and white, she lights up against a dark background, gazing to her right. In front of Opie sits not only the feminist depicted in 1790-1, but a mother of one, and pregnant once again. However, the vividness of her eyes, the relaxed shoulders, and the relaxed composition defy the emotional turmoil that had defined the years before her untimely death. Eleven days after giving birth, later that same year Opie depicted her for the last time, Wollstonecraft would pass away.
Location: Calderdale, West Yorkshire Archive Service
Description: Anne Lister’s diaries were written between 1806 and her death in 1840, containing four million words mostly written in legible hand that detail her life as a high-class, Tory landowner residing in Shibden Hall. A small portion, like this entry, is written in the coded language that Lister called her ‘crypthand’, which makes for a mysterious-looking and illegible document in its mix of ‘Greek letters with symbols of her own devising’ (Lister and Whitbread 2010, xiii). The use of crypthand ‘allowed her the freedom to describe her intimate life in great detail’ (xiii), and with assured secrecy from any prying contemporary who might get it into their heads to read her diaries. It took until sixty years after Lister’s death until her relative John, the last Lister living in Shibden Hall, decided to attempt to decode the crypthand passages together with his antiquarian friend Anthony Burrell. What they found was so disturbing that Burrell suggested the diaries be burned, and John responded by hiding them behind a panel at Shibden Hall. Here they remained until his death in 1933, where Shibden Hall and its inventory passed to Halifax Town Council, making the diaries public property. Even so, it took until the 1980s before it came to light, beyond a narrow circle of scholars and historians, what had been so shocking for John Lister and Burrell: the ‘sections written in code discussed Lister’s romantic affairs with other women’ (Campbell 2022, 2).
Description: The beau monde of Romantic-period Britain, dashing Regency gentlemen, male characters in the fiction of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, and in recent films and TV series: all of these become strikingly present through this pristine dark blue coat dating from around 1803. It was made in London by a tailor patronized by George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell (1778-1840), foremost among the early nineteenth-century dandies and the inventor of a simple but exquisite way of dressing aimed at enhancing the male physique. The coat brings to life the understated style he and his circle developed. By reinventing male fashion, these men created new modes of presenting and being (in) their bodies: besides demanding the highest standards in tailoring and attention to detail, they were innovative in valuing personal cleanliness and grooming. Though, in the Romantic period, such practices were restricted to a few individuals from the privileged elite, they also anticipated later phenomena up to recent forms of metrosexual or fluid masculine identity. This blue coat has these and other intriguing stories to tell – not least that of its rediscovery.
Description: This specimen of Romantic statuary can be found, albeit with some difficulty, in a remote lower corner of the garden attached to the site of William Shakespeare’s long-demolished house New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon. Although partly sheltered under a pediment, its three life-sized figures display symptoms of long-term exposure to acid rain, since this work has always been positioned outdoors. It was designed to adorn the entrance of a pioneering art gallery in London, and both the artistic agenda it was intended to advertise and the fate which ultimately befell it have much to say about the tensions within European romanticism between the assertion of the native and the celebration of the transcendent.
Description (English): A novel with an intriguing title, Le Pirate de Naples. Traduit de l’anglais, came out in Paris between 23rd September and 31st December 1801: it bears the double date An X/1801. Whilst all books labelled as such were not necessarily translations, this one was. At a time when the French were avid readers of English gothic fiction, it was translated particularly swiftly: it was published the same year as the original, also in three volumes. The English book cost 13 shillings and sixpence, the translation 5 or 7.5 francs. LePirate de Naples underscores the importance of translators as cultural intermediaries helping to shape a shared European imaginary.
Location: Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, England (51°10′44″N 1°49′34″W)
Description: The stone circle of Stonehenge is Britain’s most famous monument from a long-lost past. The circa 13 feet high stones, arranged in two circles with horizontal stones as lintels, suggest an impossible feat of construction, and featured in Edmund Burke’s taxonomy of the sublime: “Stonehenge, neither for disposition nor ornament, has anything admirable; but those huge rude masses of stone, set on end, and piled each on other, turn the mind on the immense force necessary for such a work”. (1) Antiquarians of the 17th and 18th centuries posited the circle to have been constructed by the Druids. In William Blake’s prophetic book Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804-1820), Stonehenge accordingly appears as a national landmark, and the site of ancient sacrificial rites. (2)
Description: This Chinese-style interior belongs to a quintessentially Romantic piece of architecture, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, designed and redesigned over the course of some 30 years to the specifications of the Prince of Wales, afterwards Prince Regent and eventually King George IV (1762–1830; reigned 1820–30). Silly, charming, witty, light-hearted, extravagant, gloriously eccentric, decadent, childish, painfully vulgar, socially irresponsible, a piece of outrageous folly and a stylistic phantasmagoria, the Pavilion is a flight of Romantic fancy, comparable in its impulse to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’ (1798, pub. 1816). It realised many aspects of Regency society: systems of patronage of the arts; ideas of health, leisure and pleasure; notions of technological progress, which drove the Industrial Revolution and were in turn reinforced by it; concepts of public and private and the proper relations between them; ideas of royal authority in the post-Napoleonic era of restoration of hereditary monarchies across Europe; the fashion for Oriental scholarship and the ‘Oriental tale’; and powerfully interconnected ideas of trade, empire and the East. More particularly, The Long Gallery’s chinoiserie encoded a complex of Romantic-period ideas about the nature of Romantic interiority and political power.