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.
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.
Description: In the early 1820s, the British Museum passed up the opportunity to purchase what is now among the most celebrated objects in the Sir John Soane Museum and, according to Tim Knox, “one of the most spectacular Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt” (105): the alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I, dating from about 1279 BC. It was carved from a single block of semi-transparent aragonite and covered with hieroglyphs from the Book of Gates. Inside, on the floor of the coffin, an image of the goddess Nut, guardian of the dead king’s soul, has been incised. (1) Admittedly, the price tag was 2,000 pounds, and the precise value of newly excavated antiquities from Egypt—received as curiosities more ‘wondrous’ than aesthetically pleasing—was difficult to establish. After some protracted dithering, the object went instead, in 1824, to John Soane whose house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields was not just a working architect’s studio, but also a dramatic showcase for his collections of architectural fragments, antiquities, artworks, and curiosities – many of which are documented in this watercolour by Richardson, Soane’s former pupil and assistant. The sarcophagus, given pride of place, can be thought of as a romantic ‘medium’ apart from the occult connotations of the term: it is itself a transported or displaced vehicle for transport into the afterlife, a museum monument to the way memory can be materialized, and death made a living (if empty) object of meditation in the present. It is also part of a narrative about the attractions of Egypt for Romantic traveller-explorers, and the perils of imperial appropriation.
Description: This remarkable map was the work of the Chartist poet, wood engraver, editor, printer and activist William James Linton (1812-97). (1) Linton is probably unknown to most Romantic scholars, yet he played an important role in preserving the radical legacy of Romanticism for the nineteenth century.
Description: The ‘Malta Notebook’, as this manuscript has become known, measures 177 x 120 x 38mm and is bound in vellum. It has one hundred and eighty-six leaves of hand-made paper of different tints, written mostly on both sides, and holding about eight thousand lines of poetry of Wordsworth’s unpublished work at that time. It is the result of an intense period of sorting, assimilation and copying of verses involving William, Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth in February and March of 1804. Significantly, it is a gift of love from the Dove Cottage household to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, their close friend and fellow poet, to be his companion during his forthcoming time in the Mediterranean.
Taken together, it is one of the greatest treasures in the Wordsworth Trust’s Designated Collection.
Description: On the 11th of October, 1819, Thomas Moore left Venice, headed for Ferrara. He was carrying one of the most infamous lost objects of European Romanticism: Byron’s manuscript memoirs. Moore agreed not to publish the Memoirs during Byron’s lifetime, but he was left free, in Byron’s words “to do whatever you please” with it after his death. Byron later supplemented the Memoirs with further additions, which he sent to Moore by post. The two did not know it at the time, but they were never to meet again face to face.