Shelley’s Inkstand

Percy Shelley's Inkstand

Contributor: Anna Mercer

Location: London Metropolitan Archives (Keats House Collection)

Description: This inkstand is held in the London Metropolitan Archives and is part of the Keats House Collection. There are in all 47 ‘Shelleyan’ objects owned by Keats House. Some are duplicates; for example, there are several engravings of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s grave. There are a few first editions, including Frankenstein (1818) and Prometheus Unbound (1820). There are a number of interesting letters, including a letter from Percy Bysshe Shelley to Thomas Medwin from 22 August 1821. Perhaps the most impressive treasure of all is the manuscript of Mary Shelley’s ‘The Heir of Mondolfo’. Another item, a mirror which supposedly once belonged to Percy Bysshe Shelley, is now missing, ‘stolen from the ground floor hall at Keats House between 3 and 3.15pm on 4 May 1994’. And then there is this inkstand. The label that accompanies it says: ‘Shelley’s Inkstand. Said by Claire Clairmont to be the inkstand used by Shelley when writing “Queen Mab”’. In the catalogue entry, there isn’t much else. It is no longer on display in the museum but has been in storage at the London Metropolitan Archives for several years, possibly several decades. What initially appears quite a simple, uncomplicated object (are inkstands not very common in literary museums?), actually provokes new questions about the Shelley circle and its mythologisation. Moreover, the fact that Shelley’s inkstand is present in the collection of John Keats’s former home might invite us to ask how relics associated with the second-generation Romantics are preserved in specific locations, further uniting them as a distinct group of writers.

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Percy Bysshe Shelley’s copy of Homer’s Odyssey

image of two copies of Homer, bound in red, on their sides

Contributor: Valentina Varinelli

Location: Keats-Shelley House, Rome

Description: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s copy of Homer’s Odyssey is on long-term loan to Keats-Shelley House, Rome, from the present Lord Abinger, the Shelleys’ heir. Homer occupied a pre-eminent position in Shelley’s personal canon, yet the existence of this copy is largely unknown. It consists of volumes 3 and 4 of the so-called ‘Grenville Homer’ (1801) bound together in one volume (the complete set would have included volumes 1 and 2, again bound in one volume, which comprised the Iliad), and it is contained in a custom-made red quarter-leather solander box with “Homer Odyssey” and “Shelley’s Copy” gold-tooled on the spine, which is both an indication and a product of the fetishisation of this volume. The recto of the second front fly-leaf is inscribed: “Percy Bysshe Shelley March 5 – 1816”. (However, the inscription is not Shelley’s autograph. Nora Crook has established that it is in fact in Mary Shelley’s hand of 1816 (private email communication).)

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Le Temple de la Nature, Chamonix

Image of a stone building - Temple de la Nature

Contributor: Patrick Vincent

Location: Montenvers, Chamonix, France

Description: Built in 1795 as a refuge for travellers visiting the Mer de Glace, the Temple de la Nature immediately became a popular tourist attraction and one of European Romanticism’s most recognizable landmarks. It normally took travelers two and half hours by mule to ascend from Chamonix to the Montanvers meadow, located 1915 meters above sea-level. Accompanied by guides and porters, they often rested half-way at Claudine’s fountain, named after the heroine of Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian’s Claudine, nouvelle savoyarde (1793), before braving a ravine infamous for its avalanches. At the refuge, they were welcomed by a resident shepherd and could take refreshments, including milk mixed with kirsch, or purchase crystals, stone paper weights, and other curiosities. The most popular activity, however, was looking through the visitor book, leaving one’s own name with comments, but also copying the choicest inscriptions. A visit to the Temple de la Nature thus enabled ordinary tourists and celebrities alike to admire one of the Alps’ most spectacular glaciers in the last years of the Little Ice Age, while also participating in the period’s vibrant album culture and contributing through it to a transEuropean tourist sensibility.

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Mount Vesuvius

Painting showing the eruption of the Vesuvius volcano

Contributor: Cian Duffy

Location: Gulf of Naples, Italy (40°49N’ 14°26’E)

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).

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The Shelley Memorial

Image of a white marble statue of Percy Shelley's drowned body on a plinth.

Contributor: Nicholas Halmi

Location: University College, Oxford, UK

Description: This object is a striking marble and bronze sculptural ensemble commemorating Percy Bysshe Shelley and displayed since 1893 at University College, Oxford, from which the poet had been expelled in 1811. Commissioned in 1890 by Lady Jane Shelley, the widow of Percy’s and Mary’s son Percy Florence—the only one of their children who lived to adulthood—the work was created by the English sculptor Edward Onslow Ford (1852–1901), a practitioner of the naturalism characteristic of Britain’s so-called ‘New Sculpture’ movement. The work consists of two visually contrasting elements, an idealized effigy in white Carrara marble and an allegorical base in dark green bronze. The marble, a life-size nude lying on its side, represents the drowned Shelley after he had washed ashore at Viareggio in July 1822. His body, reposing on a pale-green marble slab, is supported by two winged lions, between whom, and in front of Shelley, sits the half-nude figure of a mourning Muse—also in bronze—leaning heavily on her broken lyre. Both the lions and the Muse rest upon a large dark maroon marble plinth labelled (on bronze plaques) with the poet’s surname and two phrases from stanza 42 of Adonais, his elegy to John Keats: ‘IN DARKNESS AND IN LIGHT’ and ‘HE IS MADE ONE WITH NATURE’. Originally Shelley’s head was adorned with a gilt-bronze wreath—a ludicrous embellishment that can only have detracted from the statue’s undeniably arresting appearance. A fragment of this wreath survives in the college archives.

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Erasmus Darwin’s Artificial Bird

Erasmus Darwin's Artificial Bird. Pen sketch of a mechanical bird.

Contributor: Alice Rhodes

Location: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield, UK

Description: Although best known for his careers as poet and doctor (or perhaps for his grandson Charles, who would go on to lay claim to the Darwin name in the public consciousness) Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was also a prolific inventor proposing apparatuses of every kind from systems of canal locks to a steam powered chariot. Many of these, like the “Artificial Bird” pictured above, can be found in the commonplace book which Darwin kept between 1776 and 1787, now housed at Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield. There is no record of the bird leaving the pages of the commonplace book until its reconstruction by Erasmus Darwin House in 2013, yet Darwin’s bird is more than a flight of fancy. Nor was it a mere toy or curiosity. It can be read as an instrument or experiment through which Darwin gained knowledge of both physics and avian physiology, and it hatched from a long European history of creating such mechanisms.

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Mount Etna

The Eruption of Etna (oil on canvas)

Contributor: Cian Duffy

Location: Sicily, Italy (37°45.3N’ 14°59.7’E)

Description: With a current elevation of c.3350m (as of June 2019), Mount Etna is an active stratovolcano on the east coast of the island of Sicily. Etna was much less frequently visited during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than the more accessible Vesuvius, outside Naples, the usual terminus of the European Grand Tour (the main route to Sicily was via boat from Naples). The mountain had nevertheless been ‘famous from all antiquity for its vomiting up fire’, as John Dryden the younger (1688-1701), the son of the poet, reminds us in his posthumously-published Voyage to Sicily and Malta (1776). During the Romantic period, Etna and its eruptions were made the subject of many paintings and panoramas and featured also in numerous works of prose, verse, and drama produced and consumed across Europe.

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A Cloud

John Constable's Cloud Study, Hampstead, Tree at Right

Contributor: Clare Brant

Location: Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, London

Description: ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’: the first line (and proper title) of Wordsworth’s poem about daffodils (pub.1807) has epitomised Romantic poetry for generations of English schoolchildren (and for some, created resistance to it.) What made clouds Romantic? Why did poets and artists across Europe follow William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and John Constable (1776-1837) in making them subjects of Romantic poems and paintings?

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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 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”

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