Description: Dominique-Vivant Denon’s reliquary is both a personal collection and a portable, pan-European museum. It is a late gothic confection made of gilded copper, glass and semi-precious stone, complete with turrets and flying buttresses at each corner. Hexagonal in form, crowned with small cross atop a steeple, each of the reliquary’s two principal facades are divided into six compartments.
Description: Samuel Crosthwaite’s picturesque view of Cockermouth in Cumbria works hard to underplay the transformative effects of the transition from water to steam power that took place in the first half of nineteenth century Britain. At the centre of the painting sits Derwent Mill with its distinctive chimney stack. The correspondence between the smoke drifting to the left of the picture and the storm-darkened clouds to the right, set in pleasing contrast with the verdant fields and sun-dazzled water in the foreground, gives the assurance that human intervention in the scene is in keeping with the natural order of things. But as aesthetic propriety labours to reassure that all is well with the world, a contemporary viewer might have recalled the time when the mills drew clean, renewable energy from the rivers Derwent and Cocker, beneath skies unsullied by noxious fumes.
Description: ‘Temple d’amour’, a ‘Rousseau-ist rêverie’, ‘an ode to landscape art’… the small temple perched atop an artificial cliff in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in Paris is worth the climb, so long as you are prepared for it for be closed once you get to the top.
Indeed, visitors to the Temple de la Sibylle over the last few decades have rarely seen it completely free of green and white plastic barricades, the French code for ‘keep out’. As the temple is in several ways hors-champ, there is a pleasing symbolism here. It is a celebration of the sublime within a city re-design that distanced itself from Romanticism. It is a perilous, impractical site requiring multiple restorations, but founded on the design principles of security, order and efficiency of Haussmanisation (urban destruction and rebuilding of Paris, 1853-1870). It provides a panorama over a non-æstheticised outer Paris, whereas elsewhere in the city’s redesign, citizens and visitors’ attention was carefully directed in an urban theatre of reveal/conceal to show off the most prestigious city sights. The temple feels slightly other-worldly, a celebration of the spiritual and the impossible, perhaps why still today it is a favourite meeting place for lovers.
Description: In October 1809, Bettine Brentano sent a long letter to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. With this letter, a remarkable etching was enclosed. The work, fashioned by Ludwig Emil Grimm (1790-1863), depicted Bettine herself, sitting on a chair with a voluminous book. A closer look reveals the title on the spine. It is Achim von Arnim’s Wintergarten, a collection of short stories published in 1809. Yet Bettine does not hold the book like a reader. With the folded hands pressing the book against her bosom, she seems to rock it like her own child. The whole composition is meant to display a link between the book or, respectively, its author and Bettine’s heart. In 1811, Bettine would become von Arnim’s wife. The portrait, however, was first sent to Goethe. The feelings suggested by the picture were not exactly the feelings that Bettine was harbouring in her chest.
Description: In 1797, a marble monument to David Garrick was erected in Westminster Abbey on the west wall of Poets’ Corner. Charles Lamb encountered the monument in 1811 and became so rankled by it that he authored, in protest, one of the signature critical essays of the Romantic period: “On Garrick, and Acting” (1811), better known by its revised title “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare: Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Representation” (1818). Lamb’s essay—famous for its claim that to stage Shakespeare’s plays is to alter and diminish them—not only opposes assertions such as Denis Diderot’s that “A play is not so much to be read as to be performed” (Entretiens sur Le Fils naturel, 1757) but also objects to the cultural elevation of the art of acting that the Garrick monument symbolizes. Just years after Garrick monument was installed in the Abbey, Lamb marshaled a set of arguments against it: for book over body, poetic vision over theatrical spectacle, and individual readership over audience membership. Seen through Lamb’s eyes, the Garrick monument appears as a vulgarising throwback, and its monumental continuity actively counter-Romantic.
Location: National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington. Gift of Molly F. Sheppard
Description: An encounter in Rome in 1853 between the Brownings and the American sculptor Harriet Hosmer resulted in a life-long friendship and in this plaster cast of the poets’ hands, a year after Hosmer had become apprenticed to the English John Gibson in Rome. The Brownings had married in secret in London in 1846 and eloped to Italy, where they settled in Florence. The life-casting of their hands, subsequently joined into one compact piece, is a peculiar artwork, metonymic, truncated, indexical. The imprint of Elizabeth’s aging nails, thin veins, and atrophied right hand resting in Robert’s larger, firmer hand conveys the texture of skin and bone structure, giving the modern spectator a sense of being unusually close to the two long-dead poets: Elizabeth was 47 years old, Robert 41, when the casts were taken, and the eeriness of these hands, detached from their respective bodies, make us wonder about the purpose of this piece of sculpture.
Description: Amid commotion, two hands meet in the handing over of a pamphlet. One belongs to playwright and social reformer Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793), the other to La Reine, the queen Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793). The title of the engraving is given variously as Louis xvi à son peuple (Louis XVI to his people) and ‘Olympe de Gouges remettant sa Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne à Marie-Antoinette’ (Olympe de Gougesdelivering her Rights of Woman to Marie-Antoinette). One title focuses on the king, reclining somewhat nonchalantly a carriage drawn by a ‘regal cock and a docile ewe’ (Cole 2011, 47), where the other places the women centre stage. De Gouges’ Déclaration is written in response to the French Assembly’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. While its main aim is to make women equal citizens, de Gouges also tackles the question of love more directly by opposing religious marriage and calling the institution ‘the tomb of trust and love’ (2012, 254). The second title underscores that for de Gouges, there is little separation of the public and the private spheres when ‘the publicly protected rights of women reach into the household and the bedroom’ (Cole 2011, 141).
Description: In 1797, renowned philosopher and author, Mary Wollstonecraft sat for her last portrait made by John Opie, portrait painter to the royal family as well as a number of other influential Britons. Of the different portraits Wollstonecraft would sit for, this one stands out due to its serene expression. Compared to Opie’s first portrait of her in 1790-1, in which Wollstonecraft is holding an open book in her hands, gazing straight into the eyes of the beholder, the latter portrait is radically different. Holding no objects, only bearing the colors of black and white, she lights up against a dark background, gazing to her right. In front of Opie sits not only the feminist depicted in 1790-1, but a mother of one, and pregnant once again. However, the vividness of her eyes, the relaxed shoulders, and the relaxed composition defy the emotional turmoil that had defined the years before her untimely death. Eleven days after giving birth, later that same year Opie depicted her for the last time, Wollstonecraft would pass away.
Location: Calderdale, West Yorkshire Archive Service
Description: Anne Lister’s diaries were written between 1806 and her death in 1840, containing four million words mostly written in legible hand that detail her life as a high-class, Tory landowner residing in Shibden Hall. A small portion, like this entry, is written in the coded language that Lister called her ‘crypthand’, which makes for a mysterious-looking and illegible document in its mix of ‘Greek letters with symbols of her own devising’ (Lister and Whitbread 2010, xiii). The use of crypthand ‘allowed her the freedom to describe her intimate life in great detail’ (xiii), and with assured secrecy from any prying contemporary who might get it into their heads to read her diaries. It took until sixty years after Lister’s death until her relative John, the last Lister living in Shibden Hall, decided to attempt to decode the crypthand passages together with his antiquarian friend Anthony Burrell. What they found was so disturbing that Burrell suggested the diaries be burned, and John responded by hiding them behind a panel at Shibden Hall. Here they remained until his death in 1933, where Shibden Hall and its inventory passed to Halifax Town Council, making the diaries public property. Even so, it took until the 1980s before it came to light, beyond a narrow circle of scholars and historians, what had been so shocking for John Lister and Burrell: the ‘sections written in code discussed Lister’s romantic affairs with other women’ (Campbell 2022, 2).
Description: On the 22 December 1820, Goethe sent a small box to Jakob and Marianne von Willemer in Frankfurt. The lid of the box showed a hoopoe (Upupa epops). The present, ‘manufactured by the most delicate hands and with a liberal heart’, was enclosed with a letter addressed to the couple. However, it was intended for Marianne alone, Goethe’s former lover. Goethe’s phrasing avoids very carefully any personal dedication. The gift ‘may be received friendly and, according to an attached note, be used at least for a while’ (Goethe 1986, 104). The husband should by no means feel offended. It was, nonetheless, the picture on the cover which revealed to Marianne that she was the recipient. Consequently, the enclosed paper did not bear a mere ‘note’, but a poem beginning with a direct address:
Du! Schweige künftig nicht so lange
Tritt freundlich oft zu mir herein;
Und laß bey jedem frommen Sange
Dir Glänzendes zur Seite seyn. (Goethe 1986, 106)
Thou! From now on, don’t be silent for so long
Step friendly in to me more often;
And, with every pious chant,
Let something gleaming be next to your side.