Description: William Beckford (1760-1844), enfant terrible of Romantic-period Britain who lived into the Victorian age, left his mark in and on many of its literary and artistic manifestations. The son of a former Lord Mayor of London and one of the richest men in the kingdom, he was an aesthete interested in music, painting and objets d’art, a traveller, a novelist and the focus of a sexual scandal. In literature, he came to prominence as the author of the oriental gothic novella Vathek (1786), an extraordinarily imaginative work that opens with the description of Caliph Vathek’s fabulous palace of Alkoremi, an exotic fantasia on a par with the Prince Regent’s Pavilion at Brighton. A less conspicuous ‘oriental’ building project of Beckford’s was this small summer house or pavilion in the garden behind his Bath residence. Though diminutive, this building is full of surprises and tells the story of the diffusion of the Orient in the visual and spatial environment of the Romantic period, as well as in the context of an otherwise classically denotated city.
Description: The deaf composer is perhaps the most perfectly Romantic image of the transcendent genius. His music exists in his thought – his thought is, indeed, entirely musical. But this music exists only in the mind. The composer has no need to hear it in the phenomenal world, because he hears it already, perfectly, with the inner ear of the intellect.
Four hearing aids made for Beethoven in 1813 reside today in the Beethoven museum in Bonn, the city of his birth. They symbolise the most important element of the myth of Beethoven, a myth that was created and cultivated assiduously by the architects of Romanticism. Victor Hugo, no less, commented of Beethoven’s symphonies that ‘these marvels of euphony have sprung from a head whose ear is dead. It is as if we saw a blind god who creates suns’. As physical objects, however, the ear trumpets also testify to the pathos of an individual who today we would describe as having ‘additional needs’ rather than ‘transcendent powers’.
Location: The Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Description: At a glance, this looks like a standard early nineteenth-century playbill. But it’s not. In fact, it’s a nationalistic broadside published during the invasion scare of the summer of 1803 – when it was widely feared that Napoleon was readying a fleet to cross the English Channel – and it closely mimics the typographic format and language of the playbill to make its point. The work of arch-loyalist James Asperne – who ran a bookshop in Cornhill, London, with the strikingly unsubtle name of The Bible, Crown, and Constitution – this mock-playbill informs the public of a new pantomime “In rehearsal” at the “Theatre Royal of the United Kingdom” – that is, a drama to be staged in and by the nation itself. “Some dark foggy night about November next,” the playbill exclaims, “will be ATTEMPTED, by a Strolling Company of French Vagrants, an old Pantomimic Farce, called Harlequin’s Invasion or The Disappointed Banditti”.
Description: In 1815, John Keats (1795-1821) was a medical student at Guy’s Hospital, in London, studying to become a surgeon. To prepare for his lectures, Keats bought a series of dissection manuals, The London Dissector, and Outlines of a Course of Dissections for the Use of Students at St. Thomas’s Hospital, which was published in 1815, the year Keats arrived at the United Hospitals; in 1820 it was enlarged under the title The Dissector’s Manual. Since Keats entered Guy’s Hospital during the transition period between The London Dissector and the Outlines, it is probable that he owned both; he would certainly have owned the latter, which was recommended by his professor, Sir Astley Cooper. Cooper also recommended two other texts to his students: Fyfe’s Anatomy, and Blumenbach’s Physiology. Aside from these manuals and a case of dissecting instruments, Keats owned a couple of notebooks. One of these notebooks was this Anatomy notebook, containing his notes of Cooper’s teachings on anatomy and physiology (12 lectures in total, including chapters entitled “On the Blood”, the “Arteries”, the “Nervous system” or the “Muscles”). Keats paid, at the time, two shillings and two pence for this leather-bound, unpaginated notebook, wrote his name in the inside cover and left a few blank pages in the middle. The notebook is now part of the Keats House collection in Hampstead. It is being displayed open in a glass case at one of the most fascinating, and most famous, pages: the twenty-seventh page, where Keats drew some flowers in the left margin near a description of how to repair a dislocated jaw. This page therefore brings together Romantic poetry and science into intriguing relationship.
Description: In 1781, when William Herschel, the British astronomer and musician who died in Hanover, Germany, in 1822 just a year after Keats’s death in Italy, discovered the new planet Uranus, Keats was not yet born. However, after his birth in 1795, it only took Keats a few years, around a decade or so, to discover the world of astronomy. In his Recollections of Keats by an Old School-Fellow, dated January 1861, his friend Charles Cowden Clarke recalls how Keats had learned about planetary movement and the architecture of the skies in boyhood. His teacher, John Rylands, used to introduce his students to the solar system by inventing games, a creative way of seeing the school playground as a place of experimentation and imagination where the boys could picture the heavens and build their own human orrery. Biographers are still unsure as to why exactly Keats was given John Bonnycastle’s work of popular science, An Introduction to Astronomy. In a Series of Letters from a Preceptor to his Pupil, originally published in 1786, and whether it was awarded to him in 1811 as a prize for one of his early essays or as a reward for his English translation of Virgil’s Aeneid – an epic project which he never quite finished. In the end, Keats only translated half of the poem, which for a young schoolboy was still a rather admirable accomplishment. From Latin poetry to Romantic astronomy, this example of Keatsian scholarship therefore makes for an interesting connection between Keats’s first translation of Virgil and George Chapman’s first translation of Homer (Keats had studied Latin but not Greek), which inspired the poet to write his now famous sonnet, ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’, published in The Examiner, on December 1st, 1816. By the end of the poem, the Romantic traveller will have paid tribute to many different European figures, both ancient and modern, including William Herschel, ‘the watcher of the skies’.
Description: To his family’s coat of arms—a shield blazoned with three scallop shells—Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802) added the banner “E Conchis Omnia”, “everything out of shells.” When the clergyman Thomas Seward saw that motto, he wrote a satirical poem accusing Darwin of:
[…] renounc[ing] his Creator,
And form[ing] all things from senseless matter.
Great wizard he! by magic spells
Can raise all things from cockle shells (King-Hele 89).
Erasmus Darwin was indeed one of the first proponents of the gradual transformation of species. In his scientific treatises and poems, the progress of life-forms from rudimentary beings to complex species seems to take place outside divine intervention, through a natural aspiration towards greater perfection.
Description: This song sheet, titled “Mary’s Ghost or the Favorite Anatomy Song” and advertised as “being No 1 of The Ballad Singer, a Collection of Comical Comic songs,” started life as a poem, first published in Thomas Hood’s 1826 collection, Whims and Oddities. In Hood’s darkly comic ballad, and its musical setting by J. Blewitt, the eponymous ghost appears to her widowed fiancé to deliver the unfortunate news that she has been grave-robbed and that her material body is now scattered across the medical schools and laboratories of London. Together, Mary’s posthumous predicament, and the material afterlife of the poem itself, raise questions about the materiality or immateriality of body and text and about the relationship between dissection and collection which are as pertinent today as they were for late Romantic writers like Hood.
Location: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Description: This document is a hand-coloured illustration of Herschel’s Grand Forty-Feet Reflecting Telescope, engraved by J. Pass for the 1819 edition of the Encyclopedia Londinensis (or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature), and featured in the chapter related to “Optics”. At the time, Herschel’s Forty-Feet Telescope was the largest in the world and cost over 4000 pounds, paid for by King George III. Its construction began in 1786, and was completed in 1789; the telescope was erected at Herschel’s home, near Slough. It soon became a touristic attraction and a scientific curiosity: people would travel all the way from Paris to admire this new wonder and some even likened it to the Colossus of Rhodes. Later on, the telescope was marked on the 1830 Ordinance survey map of the area. Unfortunately, Herschel’s last telescope would take years to demonstrate its worth, as it had to rotate very slowly to show various aspects of the heavens. William Herschel and his sister Caroline, who worked together, found that the telescope was difficult to set up and maintain and William’s son eventually had it dismantled in 1840. Interestingly enough, the dates of construction and demise of the forty-footer cannot but recall those of the Romantic era: Herschel’s grand telescope came to serve as a symbol of the unbounded Romantic imagination.
Description: Tracing the development of life from marine animalcules to humankind, through “millions of ages”, in heroic couplets: such was the daring project of The Temple of Nature, the last poem written by Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). This original edition by Joseph Johnson matches the author’s ambitions: the poem was published in a large in-quarto volume, lavishly illustrated by Henry Fuseli. The size of the volume made it possible for the reader to admire all the details of Fuseli’s delicate frontispiece representing Urania lifting the veil of Nature. More accessorily, it also facilitated the reading of Darwin’s lengthy scientific footnotes.
Description: These slippers were gifted to Sir Walter Scott in 1830 by a friend, Lady Honoria Louisa Cadogan, and her two daughters Augusta Sarah and Honoria Louisa. Like Byron’s and Shelley’s locks of hair, Walter Scott’s slippers are objects which point to the physicality of their owners. They are also signifiers for the appreciation and devotion invested in a revered male Romantic author. When Lady Cadogan and her daughters visited Scott in his home, Abbotsford, in the Borders, they were appalled at the state of his footwear – perhaps Scott’s appearance reminded them of the description of the unkempt Minister Josiah Cargill in St Ronan’s Well (1823), “whose feet were thrust into old slipshod shoes which served him instead of slippers”. Back home, Lady Cadogan’s daughters crafted spectacular slippers for him, allegedly using a centuries’ old tartar design going back to Ghengis Khan which had come through Lady Cadogan’s family. The slippers were sent to Scott with the following note: ‘The only thing we did not admire at Abbotsford was a (pair) of ugly, uncomfortable slippers we saw in (your) study so my daughters hope you will replace them by theirs.’ (https://www.historyscotland.com/news/sir-walter-scotts-slippers-go-on-display-at-the-writers-museum-in/)