Description: Lakagígar is a 27km-long volcanic fissure in Iceland. The name means ‘craters of Laki’, after Mount Laki, the highest point at the centre of the fissure. Lakagígar was formed through a huge eruption in 1783-4 that had massive environmental, social, and cultural consequences for Iceland and indeed the rest of Europe, and which leaves a record in early Romantic literature.
Description: The Livre d’or de La Flégère, a 635-page, folio-sized, leather-bound book held at the Musée Alpin in Chamonix, is one of the few extant alpine visitor books from the first half of the nineteenth century, and the only one to cover such a wide time span. It contains over fifteen thousand names, comments in various languages, and roughly a hundred and fifty poems, sketches, and doodles, offering us rare insight into the cultural practices of European Romantic travel as well as the concomitant commoditizing of the Alps. Belonging to what historian Kevin James has described as ‘an experimental space of self-exposure’ with its well-established dramaturgy, visitor books such as this one played a central role in disseminating and democratizing the Romantic Sublime.
Description: This object is tied to Abbotsford, the home of Walter Scott, a globally famous literary tourist destination in Britain. It not only embodies the connection between literature and place, but negotiates, in quite explicit ways, some of the tensions between conceiving of literature in an age of mass consumption and recognising the intimate experience of the pilgrim reader.
This is a fairly common edition of Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion, printed and published in Edinburgh by the firm of Adam and Charles Black in 1873, and now held in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. Marmion, originally published in 1808, remained at the end of the nineteenth century, along with The Lady of the Lake and The Lay of the Last Minstrel, one of the most popular works of Walter Scott and one of the most celebrated works of English Romantic poetry. Black’s was associated with the author through the multi-volume Waverley novels that they had produced in their thousands since the mid nineteenth century. In 1871, they had produced a lavish 25 volume centenary edition of Scott’s works.
What makes this item unusual in the first instance is its covers, and in the second an inscription by its first owner.
Location: Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
Description: This engraving shows Leadenhall Street in the City of London at the close of the eighteenth century. Today, the thoroughfare is primarily associated with banking and finance; then, Leadenhall Street was one of the publishing centres of Romantic London. Dominating the image on the right is the unmistakable, pillared building of the East India House (demolished in 1861 and now the site of Lloyd’s of London). A block away, opposite the pink building near the back of the image, was No. 33, Leadenhall Street. It was here that William Lane (1738–1814) established his Minerva Press and Library in 1773, a major influence on the Romantic book trade and a key player in the history of fiction. This illustration appeared around 1799, during the golden age of the Minerva Press that spanned the 1790s to the 1810s. Yet, no image of the Minerva Press survives, and nor do its archives. The only traces that remain are the books and circulating library catalogues that the press produced. Still, these reveal the extent to which the output of the Minerva Press depended on translation and adaptation both to sell to British readers and to sell across Europe, and other evidence underscores the press’s market penetration in continental Europe.
Location: The Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature in Warsaw
Description: These pages of manuscript come from a richly ornamented and once padlocked carmine book from the years 1815-1841, held since 1996 in the collection of the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature in Warsaw. On these pages, we can see a verse by Kazimierz Bujnicki, a talented literary doyen of Polish Romanticism. This small, handy canvas and paper object, partially covered in leather with sophisticated ornamentation, the back and cover of which bore a gilded plant motif, suggests to us today a girl’s intimate diary or a secret casket. Such items in the first half of the 19th century were usually referred to as an “autograph book”, an “album amicorum”, or a “Stammbuch”. This particular example belonged to Michalina of Weyssenhoff Targońska (1803-1880), niece of General Jan Weyssenhoff (1774-1848), who was a participant in the Kościuszko Uprising (1794), the Napoleonic Wars and the November Uprising (1830-1831). Although she did not, as was the romantic fashion of the period, place a knot of hair or dried flowers into her album amicorum, she kept equally precious treasures of memory within it. It bears witness, indeed, to the Romantic culture of memory given a patriotic turn.
Location: Abbotsford, the Home of Sir Walter Scott, Melrose
Description: This small and relatively unassuming painting of Abbotsford reads like a picturesque painting by numbers, with the long shadows and repoussoir tree in the foreground, an ethereal light falling on the house in the middle distance, and the receding outlines of the Eildon hills beyond, enveloped in cloud. Three figures are visible in the foreground: one astride a horse, another intently sketching or reading on the riverbank and the other casting for a fish in the Tweed. They are a curiously disconnected group of people, with the two that face the house very much ensconced in their inner worlds. On the opposite side of the riverbank, a flock of sheep complete the pastoral idyll, congregated around the Italianate stable block with its pitched roof. Above that, the house rises out of a crop of well-established shrubbery and tree cover. The building itself is executed remarkably accurately in its architecture and scale.
However, all is not quite as it seems. All the evidence suggests that this startlingly accurate painting predates the completion of the house’s east extension. What you are looking at is not so much documentation as something that is, or at least became, a very powerful piece of Romantic propaganda.
Description: Purchased on 22 November 1869 for the 50th birthday of the novelist George Eliot by her partner George Henry Lewes, this Broadwood piano was delivered to a grieving household. Lewes’s middle son, Thornfield, had returned from farming in Africa with a painful illness and had died, aged 25, just a month previously. It was a period when neither Eliot, who was writing Middlemarch, nor Lewes, were able to work. That the piano was purchased then, indicates that it represented something of deep significance. Not surprisingly, no flurry of references to the new piano fills Eliot’s correspondence at this date. Fittingly however, the piano has an implied presence as a source of solace a decade later when, on the first anniversary of Lewes’s own death, a line in Eliot’s diary for 8 Sept 1879 reads simply: ‘Darwin. Schubert’ (Journals, 180). ‘Darwin’ may denote a visitor, or his books; Schubert she must have been playing at the piano. Eliot’s journal further records that she had ‘Touched the piano for the first time’ after Lewes’ death on 27th May (Journals, 175). This piano is, however, representative not just of the personal importance for George Eliot of Romantic music but of its significance for numerous areas of Victorian culture in Britain.
Description: The Basilica of Santa Croce is a late 13th-century Gothic church in Florence, probably designed by architect Arnolfo di Cambio. Home to the Franciscan order in Florence, it contains significant artworks by, among others, Giotto, Donatello, Brunelleschi and Vasari. From the mid 15th century onwards, Santa Croce became the burial place of some of the most prominent literary, artistic and scientific figures from Tuscany and later, the rest of Italy. In the early nineteenth century, it boasted the tombs of Niccolò Machiavelli, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Galileo Galilei and Vittorio Alfieri, the latter completed by Antonio Canova in 1810. These burials attracted the attention of Romantic authors across Europe, who variously interpreted them as metaphors of the state of Italy and for the nature of artistic fame.
Description: In 1800 a man inspired by Wordsworth’s visionary poetry made a trip to Tintern Abbey. Based in Bristol, he was a friend of Coleridge and Southey and was in the midst of editing Lyrical Ballads for the press; he also wrote nature verse in his own right. He was employed, however, not as a poet but as a scientific enquirer, and on his excursion to the river Wye he was armed with an improved eudiometer—the best instrument for measuring the proportion of oxygen, the gas first isolated by Joseph Priestley, in the atmosphere. ‘The Eudiometer’, he wrote, ‘that I have lately used is a very simple & commodious one – It consists of a tube about 5 inches long containing 200 grains of water – The space between the 140 & 180 grains is graduated. – This tube is emptied of water in an atmosphere when you wish to know its composition & plunged into a solution of muriate or sulphate of iron impregnated with Nitrous gas.’(1) He was Humphry Davy…