Wordsworth’s Wishing-Gate

Colour illustration of a lake and hills at Grasmere, including the wishing-gate

Contributor: Jeff Cowton

Location: The old Grasmere – Rydal Turnpike Road, Grasmere

Description: ‘Wordsworth’s Wishing-gate’, and what remains of it, tells a paradigmatic Romantic story of literary tourism in the heart of the English Lake District in the mid nineteenth century.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, literary pilgrimages around Britain were already popular with tourists from home and abroad. As Nicola J. Watson writes: ‘The French poet and scholar Auguste Angellier remarked on the huge numbers of literary pilgrims who came to Britain from the four corners of the world to pay homage to the country’s writers.’ From the 1820s, such tourists came to the Lakes in search of Wordsworth: the man himself and the places associated with his poetry. ‘Strangers’, as tourists were then addressed, were encouraged by published guidebooks to call on the poet at his Rydal Mount home for personal tours of his garden. An image showing Wordsworth standing in his library was included in a popular set of prints in the 1830s; by the 1850s his name was synonymous with the area: ‘Wordsworth Country’. One particular place of pilgrimage was ‘The Wishing Gate’, a humble farm gate on the old turnpike road overlooking Grasmere lake, just five minutes’ walk from Dove Cottage which the Wordsworths had made their home between 1799 and 1808.

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The Hellespont

Image of The Hellespont. A hilly horizon with blue water below and blue sky above

Contributor: Catriona Seth

Location: Turkey

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 to use this as an occasion for self-publicity which tells us something about how he viewed himself as an individual and as an author.

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Victor Hugo’s House in Pasaia

Black and white photograph of a house

Contributor: Juan Manuel Ibeas-Altamira

Location: Pasaia, Spain

Description (English): On July 18th 1843, Victor Hugo set out on his customary annual summer trip. With Juliette Drouet he headed for Gavarnie, Luz and Cauterets. The head of the French Romantics took notes on the way. As he crossed the border he was remembering the Hugo family’s previous stay in Spain: a trip towards the exotic was also a return to childhood.

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Memorial to Giustiniana Wynne in Angelo Quirini’s Garden

Contributors: Rotraud von Kulessa and Catriona Seth

Location: Unknown (probably destroyed), Italy

Description: Giustiniana Wynne (1737-1791) was a true cosmopolitan from the moment of her birth in Venice, to a ‘Greek’ local woman (born in Lefkos) and an English baronet. The list of her friends and lovers reads like a Who’s Who of the republic of letters from her ‘caro Memmo’, the Venetian patrician Andrea Memmo (1729-1793) who was her first love in the 1750s, to the young William Beckford (1760-1844) when he was touring Europe, 30 years later. She was briefly betrothed to the wealthy French Fermier-Général La Poupelinière (1693-1762). The adventurer Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) recounts in his Memoirs how he failed to help her abort an illegitimate child but tricked her into having sex with him. She married the elderly Austrian ambassador to the Serenissima, Count Orsini von Rosenberg (1691-1765) and once widowed spent much of her time during her final years with Senator Angelo Quirini (1721-1796). Her literary collaborator was sometime government spy Bartolomeo Benincasa (1746-1816). She entertained the poets Melchiore Cesarotti (1730-1808) who reviewed her 1788 novel Les Morlaques, and Ippolito Pindemonte. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Leopold Mozart are amongst those who refer to her in their letters.

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A Lock of Goethe’s Hair

A lock of hair framed with a portrait in an oval, gold frame.

Contributors: Nick Hearn and Susan Reynolds

Location: Taylor Institution Library, Oxford, UK

Description: The Taylor Institution Library has many treasures – chiefly books — but among the many rare and valuable items in the Rare Books Room one stands out. It is the item recorded in the catalogue with the shelfmark MS.8º.G.26. It is not a book or a manuscript as the shelf-mark would suggest but a lock of hair – supposedly a lock of Goethe’s hair! So it would seem that in the Taylor Institution Library, not only do we have an extensive collection of works by and about the greatest of all German poets, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), but in the depths of the library in our Rare Books Room, we have a lock of the great man’s hair! It is most likely the slip of paper with the portrait which has been classified. The little portrait, an oval piece of paper with a simple line drawing of Goethe added later is, however, an understated minimally delineated presence possibly sketched by the same person who put the sprig of hair in that gilded frame.

The star attraction – the main event — is that elongated wispy sprig of hair delicately piercing the backing paper below and itself framing a faded bloom. There are two inscriptions accompanying the lock of hair – one of them, the older one, mentions the time of year – March. It seems likely, as Professor Henrike Laehnemann notes, that the dried flower is a violet, given the time of year mentioned on the accompanying inscription. It is an intriguing ensemble – portrait, violet, lock of hair accompanied rather like some medieval relic by two inscriptions testifying to its authenticity like a secular equivalent of the medieval cedula where the name of a saint was noted and then tied to the relic.

What is the origin of these items? What do they mean? Can it really be true that this is a lock of Goethe’s hair? How did the Taylor Institution Library come by a lock of Goethe’s hair? Is it authentic? To begin to answer these questions we must look at the inscriptions.

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A Lock of Goethe’s Hair

A lock of hair framed with a portrait in an oval, gold frame.

A Lock of Goethe’s Hair

(cut on 2nd March 1823, now in the Taylor Institution Library, Oxford)

Clear as melt-water, the March air flows into the room,
Carrying the delicate notes of the birds’ first thin calls
In that garden in Weimar. The Herr Geheimrat, propped high
On his bulwark of pillows, the doctor dismissed at last,
Waits for his barber. Time to be tidy and kempt,
Fit for the salon, although his condition is still
Fragile as Meissen, and weaker than camomile tea.
The cold blade slides down his neck, gliding, and with it there falls,
As his dead hair scatters, the years of his well-worn past –
Italy, Frankfurt, the court and the theatre, the verse –
`One lock – as a favour?’ Yes – far in the past, those old Greeks,
They cut off a curl of their hair as a gift to the dead,
And the Roman boys severed a strand at their coming-of-age…
Outside, Frau von Goethe, her wholesome cheeks shiny and scrubbed
As a winter apple, goes bustling, shuffles and scolds.
Excellent woman! He thinks of Charlotte von Stein –
Her pale smile, ironic, her manners, that filigree cage
Of etiquette, trapping a passion that fluttered and cried…
Whose are those voices? Next door, or much farther away,
One, like a violin, springs in a light curving arc
While Mozart’s viola responds in its full rolling tone:
`…cut from the head of the poet as he convalesced…’
The barber is gleaning the scatterings in a white towel,
Murmurs excuses – but under the crop that remains
New rhythms and phrases are stirring, as down in the park
The tentative fronds are uncurling around the oak’s roots.
Yes, one slip of hair is a sacrifice he can afford,
In thanks to the Fates who have spared him their shears – just for now.

by Susan Reynolds

Read the blog post on Goethe’s Hair here.

Leigh Hunt’s Parlour at Surrey Gaol

Two engravings of Leigh Hunt sitting at his desk in his cell at Surrey Gaol.

Contributor: Serena Baiesi

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.

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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 Mallord William 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 by 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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The Junot-Wellington Watch

Image of a the front and back of a pocket watch, gold on one side, platinum on the other

Contributor: Jorge Bastos da Silva

Location: Casa-Museu Medeiros e Almeida, Lisbon

Description: This state-of-the-art pocket watch was commissioned by General Jean-Andoche Junot, the commander of the first invasion of Portugal by Napoleon’s armies, from the famous Swiss clockmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet. After Junot’s death, the watch was sold back to Breguet and eventually came into the possession of Junot’s enemy, the Duke of Wellington, as a gift from a comrade-in-arms. The watch thus suffered radical repurposing by a roundabout way, becoming a virtual war trophy. Its story points to the relevance of tracing the transit of objects to understanding the social and material culture of the Romantic period.

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