What is a Romantic poet supposed to look like? One answer is, simply, like Lord Byron: beautiful, brooding, and damned. Byron’s image—the dark, curly locks, the mocking aristocratic eyes, the voluptuous mouth, the chin with its famous dimple, and the implicit radiation of sexual danger—became famous throughout Britain after the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812). By the time of his death in Greece twelve years later it had launched an international style. The dark clothes, the white open-necked shirt exposing the masculine throat, the aggressive display of disarray and devilry, these were the symbols of the Romantic poetic type: the Fallen Angel in rebellion.
Yet if Byron was naturally the beau ideal of the poet, his image was deliberately manufactured and even commercially marketed. He was the most frequently painted poet of his generation: the archives of the National Portrait Gallery in London record over forty portraits and miniatures done during his lifetime, as well as several busts, innumerable medallions, and “a wax model from life made by Madame Tussaud in 1816 before his departure for Italy.”
He was also the most self-conscious of subjects. He banned pens or books from his portraits, as being too like “trade” and not “spontaneous” enough. (“I am like the tyger (in poesy) if I miss my first spring—I go growling back to my jungle.”) His private letters show Byron as anxious about his appearance—his weight, his hair loss, his club foot, his careful-casual linen—as any modern film star. He was still sending for special tooth powders in the weeks immediately before his death at Missolonghi.
His publisher John Murray skillfully controlled the portraits that were engraved on the frontispieces to his best-selling poems (which frequently sold more than ten thousand copies in a week). Some of these were immediately “improved,” to conform to the popular expectations of the Romantic bard. In the second version of Westall’s 1813 portrait, Byron’s eyes were raised apocalyptically to heaven, his hair quiffed and tinted, his brow blanched, his throat swollen with passion, and even his decorative collar-pin altered from a gentleman’s cameo to a large, glassy lover’s keepsake.
Thomas Phillips’s famous portrait of Byron in Albanian soldier’s dress, complete with turban, jewel, and dagger, was a deliberate piece of theatrical staging. Sir David Piper has well described it as “almost Errol Flynn playing Byron”; but it can also be seen as a shrewd commercial publicity shot for the author of Lara and The Corsair. Byron had bought the costume on his travels in the Epirus (1809), and commissioned the portrait back in London (1813), paying for it out of his royalties. It was a sound, long-term investment, since the original eventually went back in triumph to fly the flag at the British Embassy in Athens, while one copy was commissioned as a trophy for his publisher’s “Byron Room” and another was sold to the Portrait Gallery in 1862.
The popular idea of …