This the second instalment of a tour through the Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron published between 1832 and 1834. The series consists of one hundred and twenty-six subjects so this promises to be a long and varied journey. Here we visit our first destination, starting out amongst the Alps on the shore of Lac Leman at Villeneuve in Switzerland.
Villeneuve lies at the eastern end of Lake Geneva. Locally, where the language is French, the lake is called Lac Leman. I prefer to use the latter, to clearly separate the lake from the city in searches.
I have not managed to discover the whereabouts of Stanfield’s original watercolour. The subject is the view of the medieval gate and bridge which guarded the southern entrance to the town. The gate has long disappeared in order to facilitate the flow of traffic, and the bridge replaced by several wide, flat carriageways that have rendered the immediate area as mundane as any modern urban approach.
The lake shore, however, is just a few steps away to the left, where Villeneuve’s superb setting at the head of Lac Leman can properly be appreciated.
I visited Villeneuve in 1999 when travelling in Turner’s Footsteps for the exhibition ‘Turner, Mont Blanc and the Val d’Aosta’ [Aosta, Italy, 2000]. I was retracing the route of Turner’s tour to the Alps of 1836. Turner sketched exactly the same subject in that year (Turner Bequest CCXCIII 41a, Tate D29113) possibly with Stanfield’s image in mind.
Oddly, there does not appear to be any special connection between Byron and Villeneuve. Byron lived at the Villa Diodati near Geneva during the summer of 1816 and made both sailing and pedestrian circuits of Lake Geneva, both of which would have taken him through Villeneuve, which is the principal town at the head of the lake.
It stands within sight of the Castle of Chillon, which was a major subject for Byron and the subject of an engraving in this series towards the end of Volume 1, but Chillon is merely hinted at in the present composition. Byron was also fascinated by Clarens, the setting associated with the eighteenth century philosopher of nature, poet and novelist, John Jacques Rousseau, which is about five miles away around the north shore of the lake beyond Montreux. Villeneuve is also only ten miles from Meillerie on the south side of the lake, which is also associated with Rousseau and the site of a near-foundering on Byron’s boating circuit of the lake.
That said, the image alludes to none of that, and indeed in the most recent and detailed study of Byron’s time in Switzerland in 1816, ‘Byron in Geneva’ by David Ellis published in 2011, Villeneuve does not even merit a mark on his map. A certain looseness of relation between the pictorial subjects and Byron’s Life and Work will be a recurrent theme as we work further through the series. There are specific reasons for that, as we shall see, but on the whole the divergence contributes a strength overall. For one thing the art is never made subservient to the Life and Work, rather it works as a parallel project. Most of the artists found their subjects independently of Byron, and cumulatively the series projects a sense of a community of imaginations working on a shared project of expanding European horizons.
The commentary to the plate struggles to find anything specific to connect Villeneuve with Byron and instead relates an episode in which Byron encountered a group of English tourists at nearby Clarens. In what Byron described as ‘the most anti-narcotic place on Earth’, he was confounded to discover that the lady of the party was fast asleep in her carriage. The site of the late Byron scholar Peter Cochrane has an annotated edition of Byron’s Alpine journal, giving the original of that anecdote.
The gate of Villeneuve opened onto the road to Italy, either over the Simplon to Maggiore and Milan or the Great St Bernard to Aosta and Turin. The plate serves to introduce the general characteristics of the landscape through which we are about to travel. It is a site opening onto the epic in nature. Of extensive lakes, of rough mountain, of sunlight slanting under swirling weather. A place of passage where one could not fail to be aware of the sublime. It is a human landscape. It is a place of movement through on horseback, by boat, on foot, and of some labour.
The woman shouldering her burden in the centre foreground is sufficient to establish that. Yet it is also, as the vignette form establishes, a visionary state, yet one in miniature, condensed into a vessel that can be cupped in the palm of one hand.
And what constructs this aesthetic is the paradox that for the most part the most sublime things in nature had been reduced to duodecimo. The whole era is riddled with the apprehension that the sensibility of the age was at best diminished and at worst, shrunken into itself.
By the time that this series was conceived Byron had been dead for six years. When Byron set out on his first travels through Europe, it was with some conception that he was embarking into the unknown. And although the time of great geographic discovery was largely over, there was still room to pioneer. Even in Europe, the character and contents of other countries were shared by relatively limited sections of the populace, and still in 1824 large swathes of the continent, let alone the wider world, remained completely unpictorialised.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, travel widened to become an established bourgeois pleasure. Byron’s first voyage abroad in 1809 was unusual since in the middle of the war, and his route skirted round the main theatre of hostilities. In 1816 he was in the post Waterloo vanguard, and his death in 1824 whilst supporting the cause of Greek independence, can be seen as part of an attempt to establish an identity for Europe that reclaimed the land of some of its oldest and most noble myths.
William Brockedon, who provided the commentary to the engravings, was the almost perfect exemplar of expanding European horizons. He trained as a painter and became a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy and British Institution. In 1824 he retraced Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps with the intention of making an illustrated volume. This developed into a major project to investigate and illustrate all the Alpine crossings, and he made expeditions in 1825, 1826, 1828 and 1829, and published the definitive Illustrations of the passes of the Alps, by which Italy communicates with France, Switzerland, and Germany in twelve parts 1827-9 with 109 illustrations after his own watercolours, all engraved by Edward Finden, and bound complete in two royal quarto volumes. In 1833 he published ‘Journals of Excursions in the Alps, the Pennine, Graian, Cottian, Rhetian, Lepontine, and Bernes’ and in the mid 1830s wrote the Savoy and Alpine sections of John Murray’s seminal first proper guidebook to the Alps, the Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland, published in 1838.
On the first of Brockedon’s tours in 1824, he was accompanied by the artist Clarkson Stanfield. The two became firm friends, Brockedon dedicated his 1833 Journals to Stanfield, and each drew the other’s portrait.
At twenty-one years of age in 1824, being among the Alps must have seemed new and exciting to Stanfield, but the van had departed long before he came of age. Pictorialisation of the Alps was proliferating even before he was born, but was interrupted by the Napoleonic Wars. In Britain Turner had the field virtually to himself following a tour to the Alps in 1802 and when the bulk of his Alpine views were exhibited in London in 1819, they defined artistic ideas of the Alps for a generation. Clarkson Stanfield’s vision was almost entirely derived from Turner. He produced outstanding work, but in the end it seems picturesque in comparison rather than sublime. The latter requires going beyond what can be readily imagined. By the 1830s there was a clamour of imaginings and a throng of tourists to consume them. Turner, in response, took his vision of mountain landscapes into challengingly new territory. Increasingly, he found the public preferred to stay on more familiar artistic paths.
Clarkson Stanfield contributed thirty of the final total of one hundred and twenty six plates, including the title pages and frontispieces for the bound volumes. This is far more than any other artist. The fact that he was allowed to take pride of place not just with the first plate of the first issue, but with all eight of the landscape subjects in the first two parts, and here be allowed to provide the defining image of the final, bound edition, demonstrates what confidence the proprietors had in his name and his appeal. Subscribers must have wondered after the first couple of numbers whether they were ever going to see work by any other artists.
Stanfield had, however become quite a celebrity by the time that this publication began to appear. An oil painting of St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1830 had won him the patronage of King William IV, and he produced two paintings of Portsmouth Harbour and The Opening of London Bridge (both Royal Collection) for exhibition in 1831. The latter is undoubtedly one of his early masterpieces, and made him the talk of London artistic circles. Demand for his work as illustrator to the book trade ballooned, and he was one of the most frequently published artists during the boom years of 1830-38. In later years he became one of the most popular artists of the early Victorian era and was one of the Queen’s personal favourites. His star might now glow only faintly, but at the time of Finden’s Byron his was an exploding super-nova.
TO BE CONTINUED
Next, Turner and Gibraltar