Fragment of a cancelled copper plate from William Blake’s America

Contributor: Robert Rix

Location: Library of Congress, Washington DC

Description: The poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) printed his Illuminated Books, combining text and picture, from copper plates. The technique he used was unique and is still subject to debate. We know that he wrote directly on the copper with an acid-resistant liquid; he then proceeded to cover the plate in corrosive acid that etched away the uncovered areas of the plate, leaving text and design in relief, which was finally inked and placed in a rolling press. The exhibit shows how Blake painted text in mirror writing so that the plate, when pressed against the paper, prints in normal script. Legend has it that Blake was instructed in this peculiar printing technique in 1788, when his dead brother, Robert, appeared to him in a vision. However, Blake never gave any detailed account of how his etchings were made. The exhibit is the only surviving fragment on which Blake’s etching technique is visible. It has therefore been of great interest to critics who have tried to reconstruct how Blake made his Illuminated Books.

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Shakespeare’s Chair and the Polish Princess

Shakespeare's Chair

Contributor: Nicola J. Watson

Location: The Princes Czartoryski Museum, Kraców, Poland.

Description: This chair is part of the original collections of the Princes Czartoryski Museum (as of December 2016 part of the Polish National Museum). It is clearly an eighteenth-century chair. It has lion claws for feet, metal snakes for arms and is ornamented idiosyncratically and expensively on the seat back with a golden lyre. Above this, an inscription in Latin reads ‘William Shakespeare’s Chair.’ At first glance, this seems entirely unlikely; however, the back of the chair conceals a surprise. Open up a hinged door and within, reverently entombed in this outer shell, you find the remains of a much older chair. This is what is left of one of ‘Shakespeare’s chairs’. The story of how it travelled from Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon to Kraców describes in little Shakespeare’s import in the Europe of the 1790s as an exemplar both of Enlightenment ideals and Romantic habits of mind.

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Every House of the Ant-Hill on the Plain: Richard Horwood’s London

Section from Horwood's Plan showing Westminster and the City of London

Contributor: Matthew Sangster

Location: British Library, London

Description: Richard Horwood’s vast PLAN of the Cities of LONDON and WESTMINSTER the Borough of SOUTHWARK, and PARTS adjoining Shewing every HOUSE, a project commenced in 1790 and finally completed in 1799, touches upon many suggestive contradictions between Romantic ideologues and the print culture of the period in which these were theorised. The Plan is deeply Romantic in terms of its reach and ambition: a house-by-house map of the largest city in Europe surveyed and engraved by one man over a period of nearly a decade. Horwood himself was keen to stress the novelty and grandeur of his endeavour: his prospectus described the Plan as an undertaking ‘ON A PRINCIPLE NEVER BEFORE ATTEMPTED’ and when writing to the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce in an attempt to secure a premium for his work, he played up the physical and mental effort it had required:

The execution of it has cost me nine years severe labour and indefatigable perseverance; and these years formed the most valuable part of my life. I took every angle; measured almost every line; and after that, plotted and compared the whole work. The engraving, considering the immense mass of work, is, I flatter myself, well done.

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The engagement ring given by John Keats to Fanny Brawne

The engagement ring given by John Keats to Fanny Brawne

Contributor: Anna Mercer

Location: Fanny Brawne’s Room, Keats House, Hampstead

Description: This is the engagement ring given to Fanny Brawne by the poet John Keats in 1819, probably in sometime in the Autumn of that year. (1) The ring was probably made in the late eighteenth century, and the stone is almandine – a type of garnet – set in a gold openwork scrolled shouldered hoop. It was inexpensive, reflecting Keats’s financial problems, which created anxiety for the poet before his illness the following year. (2) The Historical and Descriptive Guide to Keats House Museum (1934) suggests the ring was worn by Fanny until her death in 1865. (3) It was left to Fanny’s daughter Margaret, who never married. She then left it to her niece Frances Ellis (née Brawne-Lindon) who gifted the ring to Keats House. In 1925, Keats’s old lodgings at Wentworth Place in Hampstead were made into a memorial to the poet and became Keats House Museum. The ring is one of 13 relics relating to Fanny Brawne.

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Plate from the ‘Frog Service’

Oval, cream coloured earthenware plate from the 'Frog Service', painted with a view of the lake at West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.

Contributor: Elizabeth McKellar

Location: London, Victoria and Albert Museum, British Galleries, Room 118; The Wolfson Gallery, case 3

Description: This dish, for serving meat or vegetables, held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, forms part of the ‘Frog Service’, a huge 50-person dinner and dessert service. It was commissioned by Catherine the Great from Josiah Wedgwood in 1773 and reflects Catherine’s passion for English landscape aesthetics and gardening. It exemplifies one way that such Anglophone tastes travelled across Europe at this time.

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Two pages from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal

Page from Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journal, 15 April 1802

Page from Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journal. 1802

Contributor: Jeff Cowton

Location: The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere

Description: In 1799, when they were both in their late twenties, William and Dorothy Wordsworth moved to make a new life together in Dove Cottage, Grasmere, UK. In May 1800, William left Grasmere for a short absence and Dorothy decided to write a journal for his ‘pleasure’ when he returned. So began a journal that she continued to write for the next thirty or so months. Four notebooks survive; a fifth, covering most of 1801, is now missing. Written largely within the Dove Cottage household, the journal contains Dorothy’s vivid observations of domestic life, her neighbourhood and the natural world, from the mundane to the extraordinary, from the sixth delivery of the coal, to the remarkable sight of reflections off the lake. As a result, as the UNESCO UK Memory of the World register entry puts it, ‘From the journal we can picture the scene of brother and sister walking, talking, reading and writing together. It is an intimate portrait of a life in a place which, to them, was an earthly paradise.’ It not only provides evidence for the nature of the relationship between brother and sister but for their creative working practices. The two pages shown here offer clues to two mysteries: the genesis of one of the most important of all Romantic poems, known popularly as ‘Daffodils’; and why Dorothy left off writing her Journal.

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A Christmas Entertainment in London, Jan 11th, 1826

Pantomime playbill, 1826, for Harlequin and the Magick Rose: or, Beauty and the Beast, Theatre-Royal, Covent Garden.

Contributor: Nicola J. Watson

Location: Theatre Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Description: Nearly two hundred years ago today, you might have attended this post-Christmas entertainment at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in London. The programme characteristically offered a straight piece (here, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Duenna) but it also included a ‘new, grand & comick’ pantomime staged by the famous composer, arranger and producer of such shows, Charles Farley (1771-1859). As nowadays, pantomime in the Regency was one of the more idiosyncratically and resolutely British forms of national popular theatre and an integral part of Christmas festivities. But, as this playbill suggests, British pantomime also drew heavily upon European literary tradition and theatrical practice, even as it staged Britain’s relation to the rest of the world in topical, patriotic and even imperialist mode.

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The notebook shared by the Shelleys, 1814-1818

Location: Library of Congress, Washington D.C., United States of America

Contributor: Anna Mercer

Description: This is the inside cover of a notebook jointly owned by Percy Bysshe Shelley (PBS), Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (MWS), and Claire Clairmont. It was used by this close-knit group of writers from 1814-18, and is now held in the Library of Congress. The notebook accompanied the Shelleys and Claire on their 1816 travels through Europe, and contains material in all three of their hands, some of which pertains to the composition and publication of MWS’s first novel Frankenstein. Continue reading “The notebook shared by the Shelleys, 1814-1818”

The Cadiz Bomb

Location: Horse Guards, London, United Kingdom

Contributor: Ian Haywood

Description: This strange-looking, even kitsch object stands in a corner of Horse Guards, next to St James’s Park in London. For all its garish and even comic appearance, it is actually Britain’s only public monument to the Peninsular war. It was first unveiled in 1816, but its genesis began in 1812 with the Duke of Wellington’s victory at Salamanca. One consequence of this battle was that Napoleonic forces withdrew from the two-year siege of Cadiz, seat of the Spanish Cortes and the new liberal constitution. To celebrate this liberation, the Cortes gave a huge French mortar as a gift to the Prince Regent (later George IV), requesting only that it be displayed in a public place. The Prince duly obliged and commissioned the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich to build a suitable carriage. Four years and an immense expenditure later, the Cadiz ‘bomb’, as it soon became known, was shown to the public on the Prince’s birthday. Continue reading “The Cadiz Bomb”

The European Jane Austen

 

Location: Chawton House Library, Chawton, United Kingdom

Contributor: Gillian Dow

Description: A letter from Isabelle de Montolieu to Arthus Bertrand, dated 3 May 1814.

On the surface, nothing links this unassuming letter – from the Franco-Swiss novelist Isabelle de Montolieu (1751-1832) to her Paris-based publisher Claude Arthus-Bertrand (1770-1834) –  to ‘England’s Jane’. Yet Isabelle de Montolieu may now be best-known – or of most interest to a general reading public – as the first translator of Jane Austen. And Claude Arthus-Bertrand was Austen’s French publisher in her own lifetime – a fact certainly unknown to Austen and doubtless also unknown to John Murray II, whose publication of Austen’s Emma (1816) appeared in Paris under Arthus-Bertrand. Continue reading “The European Jane Austen”