This the third instalment of a tour through the Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron published between 1832 and 1834. Here we look at the image chosen to serve as the frontispiece to the whole series, a view of Gibraltar by Turner. Splendid as it certainly is, its relationship with Byron’s Life and Work proves to be more complicated than one might expect.
The subject is the view of the western flank of the rock of Gibraltar, as seen from the water just off the southern tip, at the entrance to the Bay of Algeciras. It is a view enjoyed by those approaching the harbour of Gibraltar by ship.
Byron visited Gibraltar on his first major tour in 1809, when he toured the Eastern Mediterranean. He arrived at Gibraltar on 4 August from Cadiz on board the naval frigate HMS Hyperion. His ultimate destination was Istanbul and as it turned out he had to wait almost two weeks for an onward transport. Despite the length of his stay, however, Gibraltar impressed nothing on him worthy of poetic treatment, nor indeed any other form of report.
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The subject was one of the first to be commissioned. John Murray’s ledgers record that the publisher paid 23 guineas for it. It is also mentioned in a letter written by Edward Finden on 6 October 1830, saying that Turner promised to submit it ‘immediately upon his return to town’, and Finden was expecting to complete the engraving by the January or February following. As it turns out, its publication was held back, so that it could form the frontispiece to the first, bound volume, when that was compiled in 1833.
Finden’s correspondent was John Cam Hobhouse, who travelled extensively with Byron and published a journal of his own. He was Byron’s principal companion on the voyage of 1809. The context of the correspondence is that Hobhouse had provided Finden with a list of subjects with which the Life and Work of Byron might be illustrated. By the date of the letter Finden had already issued commissions to artists on that basis understood that Hobhouse would provide some explanatory notes to accompany the selection of subjects.
There cannot have ever been any firm arrangement, since by the date of the letter Hobhouse had decided against contributing. Despite entreaties, he remained firm, leaving Finden and John Murray embarrassed for material. The relevance to Byron of quite a few subjects was loose at best; non-existent at worst. We have already encountered one such instance in the title-page of Villeneuve. Gibraltar is another, and that is before we have even started with the main sequence of subjects.
The sole poetic reference of any reference is to Childe Harold’s passage through the Straits of Gibraltar by moonlight. Even then, his allusion is completely periphrastic, calling them ‘Calpe’s straits’, after Mons Calpe the ancient Latin name for the Rock.
This is without doubt a deservedly celebrated passage, and as with much of the best in literature not readily translated to the visual. It is night; the forms dimly seen; things are in motion; the moon is in the south illuminating relief on the Spanish shore, but casting everything into darkness on the African side. The ship glides through silently. It is a dream-like entry into the world of the Mediterranean.
So when William Brockedon came to draft some commentary for this subject, he was able to quote those lines, but, beyond that, had nothing. Instead was forced to complain about Byron’s reluctance to acknowledge, still less to celebrate, Britain’s military glories in relation to Gibraltar. The Rock had been taken by military force in 1704 and tenaciously defended even through siege and blockade for over a century by the time of Byron’s visit. In fact he goes so far as to consider this as an almost pathological failing:
‘was it caprice that made him indifferent to the glories of his country, on the spot where they had shone most conspicuously..?’
The references to Gibraltar in Byron’s letters were collated online by Peter Cochrane and there is an excellent compendium of the evidence relating to Byron and Hobhouse’s sojourn at romanticpoets.org. From these we learn that it was enervatingly hot, and apart from regular visits to the Garrison Library, and a few social encounters, the two simply endured as best they could the wait for an onward passage. They had hoped to travel on a naval vessel, but ended up joining a commercial packet service, The Townshend, which put in en route from Britain to Malta.
Brockedon was quite right, however, that Byron’s silence on Gibraltar was intentional. In fact only a few stanzas after the moonlight passage through the straits, Byron’s hero, Childe Harold arrives off the coast of Greece and muses:
Byron’s views on ‘the bravo’s trade’ and ‘martial wight’ would reward lengthier consideration but for present purposes we need only to refer to an overview of Lord Byron on the Poetry Foundation website:
‘Byron despised wars of aggression waged for personal gain while championing as honorable those conflicts that defended freedom, such as the battles of Marathon and Morat and the French Revolution. Bravura rhetoric animates the stanzas on Waterloo, from the memorable recreation of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels on the night before the battle, to Byron’s grim evocation of war—a contemplation of the futility of bravery and of the blood shed in purposeless slaughter.’
Suffice it to say that Byron was solidly anti-jingoistic. Brockedon’s writing has many merits, but in this instance, sadly, sounds every bit as crassly drum-beating as our present-day political champions of Great Britishness.
In this light, we ought now to consider the published image. We are fortunate that we can also refer to the original watercolour, since it was sold at Christie’s in London on 8 December 2009 no.24 as ‘The Rock of Gibraltar, with shipping in the foreground’, and reproduced splendidly in colour. Its estimate was £250,000-350,000 and it realised the sum of £502,250 to an American private collector.
Turner never went to Gibraltar, nor indeed ever went to Spain or Portugal, both of which were relatively little represented in mainstream British art. Instead, Finden secured a sketch by a younger artist, George Reinagle. He was born in 1802 and in the mid 1820s sailed with the British fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Greek Wars of Independence. He established something of a reputation from 1827 with a series of illustrations of engagements between the British and Turkish fleets.
Reinagle must have supplied the detail of the view of the Rock from this angle, and perhaps also some details of boats. It is not clear how much of the composition and detail is Turner’s invention, but several sketches of Gibraltar by Reinagle made in 1827 are now at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich (see for example PAF0089/90/92/94/97/98/99). Unfortunately the sketches have not yet been reproduced in the online catalogue, and the current coronavirus situation has, for the time being, foreclosed on any possibility of travelling to see them.
Turner was certainly expert enough in matters both marine and meteorological to have devised the circumstantial detail for himself. He would certainly have understood that the waters off Gibraltar are notoriously tricky for sailors, being prone both to wind, current and tide. The viewpoint is set precisely at the point at the mouth of the Gulf of Algeciras where a vessel would move out of the shelter of the bay and into the full force of the elements. Here, Turner marks a distinct boundary between the calm waters of the bay and the turbulent conditions of the open water.
Meteogib has a splendid overview of the meteorological difficulties of navigating in the Straits. Here, a strong wind is blowing from the west. This is the Vendeval which generally [I learn from weatheronline] accompanies a cyclonic front passing west to east. It is associated with turbulent weather and with cloud building to the east of the Rock, exactly as shown by Turner.
These are not the best conditions to be out in sailing boats and it looks very much as if the boat in the left foreground is struggling. It is a felucca, which is characterised by its short masts and long diagonal yards carrying triangular sails. They are typical of the Mediterranean, but seem best suited to calmer waters. They are now particularly associated with the river Nile. This one appears to have sailed out of the more sheltered water into the gale and found itself under too much sail. The foresail has been reefed, but the crew have dropped the mainsail on its yard and are rather disorganisedly working on what to do next. The oarsmen presumably smothered beneath would no doubt appreciate more purposeful activity.
To the right another felucca is about to encounter the same problem, but its crew are already (rather precariously) aloft on the main yard gathering in the sheet. One cannot help fearing that, unless this vessel loses some speed, or the helmsman turns more broadside to the wind (incurring some risk of a capsize), it is going to collide in a most unfortunate way with the vessels in front. Beyond, a two-master sails on a beam reach for the shelter of the bay.
In the very foreground is a small ship’s rowing boat, flying a Union Jack. It is presumably heading out to a warship anchored offshore. A more expert maritime eye than mine might well construe more significance in the details, but here we might extract a general point. The vessel prospering best is the simplest and smallest, and crewed by doughty British oarsmen. Turner had a lifetime of expertise in maritime subjects, and his sailors have the respect and sympathy of one well versed in seamanship. In any case there is a comedy of human interaction here, albeit in some jeopardy, and a sense that simple and doughty is enabling the British boat here to prevail. They might even be coming to assist.
In many ways the illustration is at direct odds with Byron. The poet might have passed through Gibraltar, but he quite constructively elided any mention of it from his work. Most particularly he would wanted to avoid developing through it any kind of nationalistic sentiment. Yet that is the foreground sentiment of the illustration chosen to serve as frontispiece to the whole project.
The Straits of Gibraltar were clearly invoked by Byron as a dreamlike (moonlit) portal into a world new to him. Turner’s illustration establishes his passage on a palpably material footing. Everyone in this composition is vividly and urgently dealing with sensational reality. In the maritime age Gibraltar was a major component of travel to and from the Mediterranean, and the British contribution to the wider structure of developing communication and consciousness is genuinely one of major significance.
But the truth is, that this project might have incorporated Byron’s Life and Work, but was an altogether grander enterprise than even that. The real achievement lies in the breadth and scope of a community of traveller artists, each contributing perspective to a new picture of an emergent world. This is perhaps time to deploy an argument that I often touted when teaching. That one should not expect singularity from art. Rather, contradictions, paradoxes, oppositions and disputations are natural, even necessary in material that properly reflects a rapidly and dynamically changing psychosphere. Singularities rarely make good art. Rather, opposites in uncertain flux; the material from which a perspective might be negotiated.
Byron’s work contributes to that; as does Turner’s, but so, too does the cumulation of work of the whole range of artists. Many of these illustrations turn out to be pioneering, some challenging, others more conventional. But together it amounts to a ‘dreamwork’ of a very much larger and varied European picture.
Next: A beginning. The first plate proper; Byron’s childhood landscape of Scotland