Description: Newstead Abbey was Lord Byron’s ancestral home, nestled in the isolated landscape of Nottinghamshire.
Byron’s attachments in his short life were always transient, and usually deeply powerful. That was true of his affections for people, objects or places. But he had an extraordinary capacity to see beauty and inspiration in everything around him, and absorb that into his work and his actions.
Newstead is a hugely significant example of that. He lived there for only a small proportion of his tragically short life. Yet Newstead’s influence on him was huge, and his influence on Newstead is, of course, timeless.
Description: Sándor Petőfi (1823–1849) was not just a poet, but also a cultural hero and icon in Hungary. In his lifetime he was already what we might spell with symbolic capital letters: The Romantic Poet. His name could be transformed into a term, as in the case of Byron or Liszt. Of course this “Petőfism” is not so extensive as Byronism or Lisztomania, but still, the main features and attributes of his character could be also be abstracted to many of the same symbolic Romantic meanings, for instance freedom, youth or independence.
This portrait of Petőfi was painted by Miklós Barabás, who was the main protagonist of nineteenth-century Hungarian Art. All the most important figures of the nineteenth century were portrayed by him, so Petőfi’s popularity is underscored by the fact that the lead portraitist depicted him in 1846. As an engraving, it was published first on the cover of Petőfi’s Selected Poems in 1846, which immediately conveys several metaphorical messages. With its opening or initiating function, the picture reinforces the poet’s intention: his aim was to be considered as the embodiment of poetry itself. In his lifetime, and particularly after his death, this image became the most well-known portrayal of Petőfi, and was reproduced extensively. It gives a characteristic glimpse of the method of the construction of Petőfi’s Romantic Authorship through symbolic portraits from the 19th century.
Description: This set of glasses and decanters has been on permanent display at George Gordon, Lord Byron’s ancestral home, Newstead Abbey, since 1974. It is believed that after Byron’s death in 1824 they came into the possession of Byron’s half-sister Augusta Leigh and were passed down her family line. A previous curator of Newstead Abbey, Haidee Jackson, traced the set’s provenance to an auction in 1906, where they were sold as: ‘Mahogany inlaid Spirit Case, containing four decanters and twelve glasses, with engraved on lid containing coronet and NB, and on inside lid an MS. Memorandum in Augusta Leigh’s autograph, “From Samuel Rogers to my Brother”’. The gift epitomises the many social transactions which characterized and cultivated the relationship between Byron and the then celebrated banker-poet Samuel Rogers (1763-1855) as fellow-poets and celebrities.
Location: Salone delle Feste, tavolo 3; Museo Glauco Lombardi, Parma.
Description: This object, a commonplace book, speaks to a number of questions: What did a European female ruler from the Romantic period read? And how did she respond to the works? And was this reading also a creative, ‘writerly’ act?
Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise of Austria, Duchess of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla from the Congress of Vienna (1814/15) to her death in 1847, was a keen reader who kept several diaries, akin both to English commonplace books and the French practice of extraits et mélanges. There she transcribed longer and shorter extracts from the books she read, as well as her own observations and reflections. This commonplace book in our exhibition is the most significant and representative of them. This kind of artefact was in fact a relatively common phenomenon among women (and men) of the middle and upper classes all around Europe; yet, this specific example offers insights into a woman whose life blended public and private aspects, officialdom and intimacy, in peculiar and significant ways. Mixing reading and writing, reception and creation, Marie Louise’s commonplace book may be argued to be ultimately a vehicle for authoring both one’s own book and, in turn, one’s own Romantic self.
Location: Sikornik Hill, also known as the Hill of Blessed Bronisława, Kraków, Poland
Description: Kościuszko’s Mound (constructed 1820-1823) is an earthen barrow built on the hill called Sikornik in the west of Kraków (1). Following Kościuszko’s death in 1817, it became a matter of national urgency to construct a memorial to honour his memory. Kościuszko was recognized not only as the commander of the last military effort aimed at preserving Polish statehood, but also as a national spiritual leader urging progressive social reform. Kraków, where Kościuszko’s Insurrection broke out in 1794, was an obvious choice for the location of the monument. Wawel Cathedral, the burial site of the Polish kings, was the most appropriate place for his remains. Its role as a shrine for national heroes was inaugurated in 1817 by the funeral of Prince Józef Poniatowski, the commander of the Polish troops under Napoleon. Kościuszko was buried beside him in 1818.
Description: This creased and uncharismatic scrap of paper bears a name to conjure with, Robert Herries, visible in the design at either end: in addition to the Herries armorial bearings there are three ‘hurcheons,’ otherwise known as hedgehogs. This is a ‘circular note,’ precursor to the travellers’ cheque. It is a rarity; these notes were routinely destroyed after cancellation but this one is unused and therefore uncancelled. It was scanned from a guard book [ref A/26/b/3] by Karen Sampson of the Herries archive at Lloyds Bank. We do not know its provenance.
The template is in French, the international language of the day, and indicates that payment can be drawn at the Paris headquarters of the bank. The bank also had offices in Dover and London. On the note, there are spaces for the addition of a date and the customer’s signature. Upon completion, with presentation of a letter of ‘indication’ or identification, and after a wait of ‘sept jours,’ the circular note would yield cash in the local currency at banks and businesses in a network stretching from Calais to Moscow, and even further afield. It permitted a new, more informal, style of travel across Europe in the Romantic period.
Location: Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire, England
Description: This fragment is a single leaf, pages 1 and 2 (20 + 20 lines; 281 words) of a letter bifolium, of which the second leaf is missing. The paper is weak at the original folds, with a short tear at the head. There is no signature, no date, and no address. An origin-address and date [‘From Hans Place | Nov. 29 1814’] have been added in pencil in another hand at the upper edge of page 1. The ink (iron gall) is bright, showing little evidence of light exposure. Written in Jane Austen’s clear, round hand, the leaf corresponds to the first section of Letter 112 in the authoritative Oxford edition. Austen writes from her brother Henry’s London home to her niece Anna Lefroy. The fragment opens ‘I am very much obliged to you, my dear Anna’; it ends at the foot of page 2 with the words: ‘& hugs Mr Younge delightfully’. In between, Austen discusses her social life during a London stay that includes a disappointing trip to the theatre (‘I fancy I want something more than can be. Acting seldom satisfies me. I took two Pocket handkercheifs, but had very little occasion for either’). These two pages are a resilient survival of an act of loving destruction, representing the largest part of a four-page letter, dismembered for keepsakes, into at least five portions, one of which is now lost; two are in the British Library’s Charnwood Autograph Collection; and a further portion was sold at Sotheby’s into private hands on 11 July 2017, at which time the present portion failed to sell. We might see the dismemberment, private, and public fortunes of this letter as an expression in miniature of the fate and import of Austen’s letters, and indeed celebrity author’s letters, more generally.
Description: The name ‘Dardanelles’ might make you think of a busy shipping canal or of the site of a deadly first World War campaign. The ‘Hellespont’, which refers to the same body of water, might lead you to Hero and Leander’s sad story, recounted in classical sources, but also revived by Christopher Marlowe in (1598) or by Leigh Hunt in 1819. Both terms refer to a single strait. At its narrowest—where its currents are extremely strong—it is 1.2 kilometres across. Whilst it was made famous in myth and in history for tragic deaths, the site is also important for having offered Byron an occasion to accomplish a seemingly heroic act—swimming safely across—and use this as an occasion for self-publicity which tells us something about how he viewed himself as an individual and as an author.
Location: Surrey Gaol, Horsemonger Lane, London. Detail from Edmund Blunden, ed., Leigh Hunt. A Biography (Archon Books, 1930)
Description: In 1812 Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) wrote that the Prince Regent was a violator of his word and a disreputable libertine in an article published in The Examiner — a radical newspaper he edited with his brother John. As a result he was sentenced to prison for two years from 1813 until 1815 for seditious libel and sent to Surrey Gaol, Horsemonger Lane. After a month spent in a small dwelling, Hunt was moved to a two-room suite in the prison infirmary. Here Hunt spent his days reading, writing, meeting with friends who constantly visited him, and enjoying the company of his wife and children. Even though during his prison days Hunt suffered several nervous attacks, characterised by palpitations, headaches, and uncontrollable anxiety, he describes this period in his autobiography, in many letters, and in reported conversations, as very convivial. Secluded in prison, Hunt became very productive, constantly contributing to The Examiner, writing poetry later collected in Foliage, composing the long poem The Story of Rimini, and beginning his drama The Descent of Liberty. He also became the centre of a very animated literary and liberal intellectual circle, which became legendary as a model for Romantic intellectual sociability.
Description: Located just outside the Italian city of Naples, the volcano Vesuvius was one of the most spectacular instances of the ‘natural sublime’ typically visited as part of the Grand Tour of Europe. Vesuvius was in a more-or-less constant state of activity throughout the Romantic period and had a least six significant eruptions between 1774 and 1822. In a letter of December 1818, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) describes it as ‘after the glaciers [of the Alps] the most impressive expression of the energies of the nature I ever saw’ and his response is visible in the volcanic landscapes and imagery of Prometheus Unbound (1820). (1) Influential Romantic-period travel writing, such as A Classical Tour through Italy (1812) by John Chetwode Eustace (1762-1815) and Remarks […] During an Excursion in Italy (1813) by Joseph Forsyth (1763-1815), offered extended descriptions of the volcano and its environs for the increasing numbers of tourists who visited as well as information about the latest speculations in natural philosophy. Eruptions of Vesuvius were made the subject of numerous paintings, including celebrated works by the British artists Joseph William Mallord Turner (1775-1851) and Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97), by the German Jacob Philipp Hackert (1737-1807), and by the Frenchman Pierre-Jacques Volaire (1729-99), who died in Naples. They were often depicted in panoramic exhibitions in London and other European capitals – and, of course, they feature in countless works of fiction, poetry, and drama by authors across Europe. Arguably, Vesuvius drove the explosion (if the pun may be forgiven) in the use of volcanoes and volcanic eruptions in Romantic-period cultural texts right across Europe as metaphors and similes for everything from poetic inspiration to political revolution. Hence Lord Byron (1788-1824) no doubt had Vesuvius in mind when he lamented, in the thirteenth canto of Don Juan (1823), what he saw as the clichéd ubiquity of volcanic imagery: ‘I hate to hunt down a tired Metaphor –/ So let the often-used Volcano go;/ Poor thing! how frequently be me and others/ It hath been stirred up, till its Smoke quite smothers’ (ll. 285-8).