Byron and the idea of Europe: Introduction

As we peer out from locked down tiers and count down the days until Brexit it seems an opportune moment to give some thought to Europe. So while Boris paddles the battle bus up the creek he claims the People of Britain voted for, I propose we take back control and chart an alternative voyage around Europe in Byron’s footsteps. The poet will be accompanied by a crew of artists, with Turner at their head, but ably assisted by Clarkson Stanfield, David Roberts, J.D Harding, Samuel Prout and many others.

Photograph by David Hill

The inspiration for this excursion is ‘Finden’s Landscape and Portrait Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron’ published 1832-34. I came to this through an interest in the watercolours that Turner made to illustrate it.  It quickly dawned on me, however, that the project was much better considered as a whole. Turner contributed only one sixth of the total of one hundred and sixty subjects engraved, and never himself visited many of the places depicted. A strong team of some of the most popular and adventurous artists of the period contributed the remainder. Subjects are scattered across the continent from Portugal to Istanbul. This will be an opportunity for me to revisit destinations, some of long ago, and conceive at least the intention of at some time visiting them all. Faint hope, perhaps, in the current situation, but a consoling one, looking forward to better times.

Photograph by David Hill

The Byron illustrations were actually two separate projects. The core project was a new, mass-market edition of ‘The Life and Works of Lord Byron’. This was published by John Murray in seventeen monthly volumes, the first appearing in January 1832. Turner was the principal illustrator of this series, contributing seventeen title-page vignettes and frontispieces for each volume, half the total of thirty-four works.

Photograph by David Hill

The second element was a companion series issued under the title of ‘Finden’s Landscape Illustrations to Mr Murray’s First Complete and Uniform Edition of The Life and Works of Lord Byron’.  This was issued in monthly parts alongside The Life and Works, and eventually ran to twenty-four parts, each consisting of five plates, a total of one hundred and twenty subjects.

Photograph by David Hill

Edward and William Finden were brothers and among the leading engravers in London in the 1820s and 1830s. They established their reputation in the new medium of steel engraving producing illustrations of high finish and tonal variety that was capable of yielding thousands of impressions without serious diminution of quality. This lent itself readily to an emerging middle-class market, and illustrated books began to proliferate from the mid-1820s. They were John Murray’s engravers of choice to illustrate his new edition of Byron’s Life and Work, and keen to share in the profits of the illustrated book trade by producing a separate series of Landscape Illustrations.

A prospectus for the Life and Works was issued in October 1831, and a notice appeared in the Literary Gazette for 8 October, p.653 that also announced the Landscape Illustrations.

J.D.Harding, Bay of Naples: Photograph by David Hill

Most previous commentary concentrates on Turner’s contributions alone. It would, however be even more fruitful to consider the project as a whole, and Turner’s work alongside that of his contemporaries. Turner was certainly the major artistic celebrity, but the other artists were equally if not more popular by the early 1830s. Stanfield was an especial success. A comparison of original works would no doubt prove Turner’s superiority, but under the engraving skills of the Findens, there is a uniform aesthetic quality throughout. Turner challenged his engravers to develop an especially subtle modulation of tone and atmosphere, and the Findens were expert in those effects. Most of Turner’s fellow-artists on the project were unashamed acolytes of the great artist, and with the aid of Finden’s engraving the results were as Turnerian as their inspiration.

Clarkson Stanfield, Ioannina: Photograph by David Hill

Together as a series, they establish a richly atmospheric, affective, and imaginative panorama of Europe, at just the time that the continent was opening up to mass travel and tourism. They defined the Romantic notion of Europe for a generation or more. 


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