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The Romantic Circle

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 the inspired writer, which we now consider an essential aspect of the true poet, has its own particular history. In the mid-eighteenth century, the dominant mode for picturing genius (whether literary or artistic) was still that of the Gentleman at Ease in his Study, often surrounded by the comfortable furnishings of solidly bound books and decorative inkwells. If Inspiration was present, it was usually in the form of an attendant Muse in sportive draperies (tenderly seductive) or as a classical bust (severely instructive), though these according to Horace Walpole were to be examples of elegant “wit” rather than solemn neoclassical “symbols.” But with the revolutionary upheavals of the 1790s, this style abruptly changed into something more democratic, with a plainer and fiercer edge.

In 1796 the Bristol bookseller Joseph Cottle began commissioning pencil drawings of a number of unknown young poets whose work he thought might have a future. Over the next two years he published four of them by Robert Hancock, to be engraved as the frontispieces to their books. Cottle’s selection was astonishingly prescient. All four of his poets were in their twenties, without literary recognition of any kind, and with undistinguished backgrounds and very checkered early careers. Their stark profiles have the awkward intimacy of photo-booth images, or even police mug shots. But we can now see them as passport pictures to the new Romantic age.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was from Cumberland, and after graduating from Cambridge had lived for some time in revolutionary France, where he had fathered an illegitimate child by his lover Annette Vallon. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was from Devon, had left Cambridge without a degree, and under the pseudonym Silas Tomkyn Comberbache had temporarily joined the 15th Light Dragoons, from which he was discharged as “insane.” Robert Southey (1774-1843) was from Bristol, had graduated from Oxford, and was lecturing with Coleridge on revolutionary politics. Charles Lamb (1775-1834) was born in London, had attended Christ’s Hospital School with Coleridge, and after his sister Mary had gone briefly but spectacularly mad (she murdered their mother) had joined the East India Company as an office clerk. Their early collaborative works included a verse play The Fall of Robespierre (1794, Southey and Coleridge); a shared selection of early Poems (1797, Coleridge and Lamb); and the first great collection of the English Romantic movement, Lyrical Ballads (1798, Wordsworth and Coleridge).

Even formal portraiture quickly became more dramatic and psychologically intense, with a feeling of confrontation and challenge. The striking pair of pictures by Peter Vandyke of Coleridge and Southey, also commissioned by Joseph Cottle in 1795, show the two poets as fiery prophets of a new age.

This was the time of the great dream of Pantisocracy, when Coleridge and Southey planned to abandon their studies and emigrate to the banks of the Susquehanna River in northern Pennsylvania to start European civilization anew in an ideal American community of equal, self-governing men and women. They were giving public lectures on these revolutionary themes, and their portraits vividly convey the electricity of their youthful presence to an audience, their huge eyes and wildly exaggerated hair (much remarked on at the time by local newspaper reports in Bristol). They express a new kind of dangerous, democratic energy and romantic fervor. The high silk cravats and brightly colored redingotes are conscious tributes to the current styles in France, where the revolutionary Jacobins were debating the future of mankind in the Paris Convention at the time of the Terror.

When Dorothy Wordsworth first glimpsed Coleridge a year later (characteristically he jumped over a gate and sprinted across a field to meet her) she quoted Shakespeare’s definition of a poet.

He is a wonderful man. His conversation teems with soul, mind and spirit…. His eye is large and full, not dark but grey…. It speaks every emotion of his animated mind; it has more of the “poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling” than I ever witnessed.

The circle that formed around Coleridge, Dorothy, and her brother, William Wordsworth, over the next decade revolutionized English poetry, and reanimated English prose through the highly personalized essays of Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincey. It also changed forever our idea of creativity and the individual imagination. The Romantic writer was revealed as essentially an inspired autobiographer, drawing on an inner world of experiences going right back into childhood, and now looked upon as to some degree a physical embodiment of his or her own literary work. Hazlitt, himself trained as a painter and aesthetic philosopher, christened this emergent style the “egotistical Sublime.” Poetry became an impassioned projection of deep autobiography, and the portrait became a further extension of this expanded self: a visual record of mysteriously radiating energies and original genius. The word “genius” itself began to change its popular meaning around 1800, implying exalted and exceptional gifts as opposed to mere technical skill and “talent.”

So with the next generation, that of Keats, Shelley, and John Clare, portraiture became more intimate and moving. Public confrontation and posing (still inescapable with Byron) was steadily replaced by meditation, and by an extraordinary haunting quality of self-reflection and self-awareness. The notion of the poet as the neglected genius, doomed to die young or go mad, and remain largely unrecognized by the general public, subtly modulated the pictorial style. There is an extraordinary lack of flamboyance in these later Romantic pictures: no exotic furnishings or stagy positioning in the Sir Joshua Reynolds manner; no flashy brush work or racy silver highlights in the Thomas Gainsborough idiom. (Gainsborough sometimes used ground glass to achieve his glittery finishes.) They are quiet, direct, intense.

Many of these portraits were painted by personal friends of the writers, like Benjamin Haydon, Hazlitt, and Joseph Severn. They have the quality of tender souvenirs, powerfully suggesting the intense solitary inner life of their sitters. For the painters the problem of rendering this inward quality of genius, the workings of the imagination as an interior force (no longer represented by external Muses), had become the paramount artistic demand and the new touchstone of Romantic inspiration.

Several painters, like William Hilton, Joseph Severn, and Amelia Curran, unsatisfied with their first attempts, returned to their canvasses after the sitter’s death. Severn, for example, went to enormous pains to reconstruct a remembered image of Keats in the study at Wentworth Place, Hampstead, when he had just completed the “Ode to a Nightingale” in spring 1819. Severn actually began it in Rome in autumn 1821, several months after Keats’s death, and in the course of two years added meticulous authenticating details: “The room, the open window, the carpet and chairs are all exact portraits, even to the mezzotint portrait of Shakespeare given him by his old landlady in the Isle of Wight.” Such portraiture thus takes on a biographical and memorial quality, the immediate “likeness” becoming subtly overlaid with retrospective feelings of tragic loss, of “intimations of immortality,” and the haunting sense of historical grandeur not fully recognized in the sitter’s own lifetime.

The poets had, in effect, changed the painters’ idea of what the genre of portraiture was really about, and why it was artistically important. The previous age had been dominated by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and his refined concepts of classical art, dependent on Italian Renaissance models. The portrait was regarded as a highly commercial form, valuable as a source of commissions (Reynolds was receiving 50 guineas for a head, and 200 guineas for a full-length portrait by the end of his career); and for social advancement, an entrée into the houses of the aristocracy. Reynolds competed fiercely with Romney and Gainsborough for this market, and produced what are now regarded as characteristic masterpieces of the period, including pictures of Dr. Johnson, David Garrick, and Oliver Goldsmith. Yet in the aesthetic hierarchy of art, as defined in his Fifteen Discourses in the Royal Academy, portraiture was still assigned a lowly status similar to still-life painting or landscape, and rarely rose above “correct and just imitation” unless combined with a grand historical subject. The great ambition of the early Romantic generation—especially Northcote, Henry Fuseli, Benjamin West, and Haydon—remained the painting of large historical canvasses: battles, Biblical scenes, Shakespearean incidents, or classical myths. These were peopled by gods and goddesses, kings and heroes; not living men and women.

The emergence of Romantic portraiture was therefore almost an accident. The painters came to realize that a great historical event—Romanticism—actually surrounded them, and that, as Shelley claimed, it was the poets who were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The gods and heroes were alive in the next room; sometimes in the same room. The new artistic challenge became evident: how to render the force of individual personality, the workings of creative genius, the inner springs of creation, in the direct realistic account of a human face? How could a satisfactory human “likeness” somehow be given the divine and heroic spark?

By some artists, this was even regarded as a scientific problem. The study of phrenology provided a theoretical base for analyzing human features, and especially the shape of the skull, as a direct physical expression of character traits, inner powers, and dominant emotions. It was first popularized in Paris in 1807 through the lectures of the Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall. He argued that not merely general temperament, but also specific faculties like Memory and Imagination produced recognizable formations of the cranium, brow, and facial features. The widespread use of both life masks and death masks (the former often extremely painful to execute) was prompted by this pseudo-science. Yet it did have successes of another, unexpected kind. There are few death masks more moving than that of Keats.

There is probably no life mask more stunningly expressive of inner power than James Deville’s mask of Blake (1823), later cast in bronze. It was deliberately intended as a phrenological demonstration of what was “representative of the Imaginative Faculty.”

But in reality there was no scientific shortcut for the painter, and everything depended on a new, psychological penetration of character and the artistic rendering of interiority. One of the most successful was James Northcote RA (1746-1831), who painted plain but noble studio portraits of Godwin and Coleridge, and numerous self-portraits. Significantly he posed himself with paintbrushes in one hand and the other pointing pensively to his own brow to indicate the inward source of all artistic power.

Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786- 1846) spent years laboring on his enormous and unfinished canvas of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, but came to realize that the most valuable things in it were the faces of his friends Wordsworth, Hazlitt, and Keats that he had casually slipped into the crowd. His true historical masterpiece was a portrait of Wordsworth in old age (1842) set upon the stormy evening mountainside of Helvellyn, in a pose of almost monumental inward thought. He described Wordsworth’s head “as if it were carved out of a mossy rock, created before the Flood!” Highly introspective himself, Haydon kept a remarkable journal, which he completed on the day he committed suicide in June 1846. The last entries are among the most moving of all Romantic documents: “O God! It is hard, this struggle of forty-two years; by Thy will, and not mine, be done, if it save the art in the end. O God, bless me through all my pictures…. Slept horribly. Prayed in sorrow, and got up in agitation…. ‘Stretch me no longer on this rough world.”’ The last quotation, from King Lear, realizes a tragic pun which only a painter could have made—as if his whole life had been a “stretched” canvas over a frame of agony. Haydon shot himself in front of an unfinished picture in his studio, covering the canvas with his own blood.

Thomas Phillips RA (1770-1845) based much of his career on literary portraiture, producing notable studies of Blake, Byron, Coleridge, and Sir Humphry Davy. He was particularly admired for the “noble gloom” with which he revealed the Romantic intensity of his sitters. In 1818 he was commissioned by John Murray to produce a whole gallery of leading authors to decorate the publisher’s office in Albemarle Street, London. This Romantic Pantheon, unique of its kind, included Scott, Byron, Coleridge, Southey, Thomas Campbell, and Samuel Rogers, several of whom hang there to this day.

But many of the most successful Romantic portraits were private, unpaid-for acts of friendship or passionate homage. It was as if the touch of personal intimacy alone could yield up the secrets of a writer’s inner world. The American painter Washington Allston (1779-1843), when trying to capture the fluctuating genius of his friend Coleridge in middle age (1814), remarked on the supreme difficulty of rendering this essential, inward, fleeting quality of the poet’s mysterious power.

So far as I can judge…the likeness of Coleridge is a true one, but it is Coleridge in repose; and, though not unstirred by the perpetual ground-swell of his ever-working intellect, and shadowing forth something of the deep philosopher, it is not Coleridge in his highest mood, the poetic state…. When in that state, no face I ever saw was like his; it seemed almost spirit made visible without a shadow of the physical upon it. Could I then have fixed it upon canvas! but it was beyond the reach of my art.

Many of the poets had similar reservations about their own images, but they could be devastatingly funny on the subject as well.

Coleridge gave a typically mocking self-description in a letter written shortly after the Vandyke portrait was painted in 1795:

My face, unless when animated by immediate eloquence, expresses great Sloth, &great, indeed almost idiotic, good-nature. ‘Tis a mere carcase of a face: fat, flabby, & expressive chiefly of inexpression…. Iam deep in all out of the way books…Metaphysics, & Poetry, & “Facts of Mind”…I cannot breathe thro’ my nose—so my mouth, with sensual thick lips, is almost always open….

Many painters called to take Southey’s likeness at Keswick, especially after he was made Poet Laureate in 1813, but he disliked most of the results, describing one portrait by Phillips as giving his eyes “an expression which I conceive to be more like two oysters in love than anything else.” Wordsworth silently studied a particularly wind-blown, open-necked and dashing chalk study of himself by Haydon—and then dryly christened it: “The Brigand.” When Edwin Landseer went up to paint Sir Walter Scott’s portrait at his lair of Abbotsford in 1824, while the great novelist was working on his romance Redgauntlet, Scott cheerfully remarked: “He has painted every dog in the house, and ended up with the owner.”

Nonetheless the achievement of Romantic portraiture in Britain did make something of what Hazlitt called “the Spirit of the Age” both visible and supremely memorable. It encompassed not merely the poets who have become almost the symbols of creativity itself, but also the entire intellectual panorama of that great period of turmoil and aspiration. The anarchist philosopher William Godwin, the great experimental scientist Sir Humphry Davy, the critic and dream-haunted English Opium Eater Thomas De Quincey, the gothic novelist Mary Shelley, the impassioned feminist Mary Wollstonecraft—all are present with a force of individual life and imaginative energy which calls us back to one of the greatest periods of British art and culture.

Lord Byron would certainly have scoffed at the idea of canonization, as an incurable vulgarity. Yet these Romantic figures have gradually become our icons of genius, the secular saints of the British national heritage. They stare out at us, they gaze back into our own hearts, they silently challenge us to match them in their daring and their intensity.

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