Location: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, USA
Description: This oil painting executed in 1819 by Thomas Daniell (1749-1840) shows part of an extraordinary ‘Indian’ landscape at Sezincote House in Gloucestershire, UK. Still extant, and open to the public, this expensive experiment in the Indian style was completed in 1817. The style was characteristically British rather than European, associated with wealthy ‘nabobs’ returning from long residence in India to make their way in British society as best they could; the eclecticism of le jardin à l’anglaise when exported to Europe stretched more usually to the exoticism of chinoiserie. (1) Nevertheless, this garden illustrates a Europe-wide truth about how inland water was imagined in the period; water was Romantic if – and only if — it appeared to be wild rather than tame. By contrast, explicitly instrumentalized water – the waters of spas and canals, for example – remained resolutely unromantic.
Location: Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Description: This manuscript notebook contains fair copies of several poems Shelley wrote during his time in Italy between late 1819 and the summer of 1820. It provides fascinating evidence of the process of creative labour and of the different stages of composition a text undergoes before transitioning into the medium of print, and of collaboration between the Shelleys. But it also sheds light on the nineteenth-century canonization of British Romantic writers through both the dispersal and the collection of their material remains, telling the story of the considerable part that North American enthusiasm played in the process.
Description: Located on the banks of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, John Bartram’s garden is the oldest botanical garden in America. It was founded in 1728 when Bartram purchased the land in what was then Kingsessing Township, an area originally inhabited by the Lenape people and settled by the Swede Hans Månsson in the mid seventeenth century. Bartram built the stone house which still stands today and laid out the original garden which was later expanded and maintained by his sons William, who made an early sketch of the property, and John junior. The Bartrams helped to shape the estates and gardens of the Romantic period by introducing many American plant species to Britain, and William’s widely-read account of his botanical expeditions in connection with the garden, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulgees, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws (1791), is known to have influenced François-René de Chateaubriand, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. Bartram’s Garden exemplifies not only the increasing prominence of botany as a branch of natural philosophy during the eighteenth century but also the rise of plant collecting as an index of cultural and economic capital.
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).