This the fourth instalment of a tour through the Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron published between 1832 and 1834. Here we consider the first plate, which takes us to the Dee valley in Aberdeenshire and into a formative experience of the Scottish landscape.
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The subject is the view from the road east of Ballater in the Dee valley, as seen from near Newton of Tullich, looking along the river valley towards Ballater Church spire with the peak of Lochnagar in the far distance. The view survives virtually unchanged.
As a boy of eight, Byron spent some time for the sake of his health living in a farm cottage at nearby Ballaterach. He was sent there to escape an epidemic of Scarlet Fever that swept through Aberdeen where he was at school. Ballater is about forty miles inland of Aberdeen along the river Dee.
The farm cottage was a simple building, little more than a traditional croft, and still survives, although much enlarged.
There is a wonderful nineteenth century photograph of the cottage and adjacent farm buildings.
Already in the years not long after Byron’s death in 1824, as Thomas Moore noted in the Life of Byron, it had become a place of pilgrimage and the occupiers showed the bed in which Byron slept.
The engravings were issued to subscribers in twenty-four parts, each containing 5 plates, beginning in January 1832.
This was the first plate of all, and according to the list of subjects was intended to be bound opposite p.22 of the first volume of John Murray’s complete edition of the Life and Works of Lord Byron which the engravings were designed to illustrate [see introduction]. A different view of Lochnagar [see following article] appeared in the sixth number designed to illustrate one of Bryon’s early poems inspired by the residence.
Given that this was intended to accompany Moore’s account of this episode in the life, it is perhaps something of a surprise that the plate does not actually feature the cottage. In truth that is nearly two miles away behind us, and tucked in a side valley of the Dee.
Moore, however, thought the cottage rather unbecoming: ‘neither its own appearance, nor that of the small bleak valley, in which it stands, is at all worthy of being associated with the memory of the poet.’
Quite what he might have preferred is unclear, but he steers the reader away from such paltriness towards the broader valley: ‘Within a short distance of it, however, all those features of wildness and beauty, which mark the course of the Dee through the Highlands, may be commanded.’
It is not clear how long Byron spent at the cottage, perhaps it was just one summer to recover from the fever, but his stay left an ineradicable impression. He invokes the dark Grampians in several poems, the most celebrated of which is ‘Lachin y Gair’ written in 1806. We will give that poem some consideration in the next instalment.
The grander scenery is certainly Byron’s subject, but it is by no means certain that he was embarrassed by the class of his accommodation. For present purposes we might refer to another poem, ’I would I were a Careless Child’ written at about the same time as ‘Lachin y Gair’.
The cottage becomes a ‘Highland cave’. This is perhaps a little over-mythologizing, but the central intention is to set himself apart from everything that constitutes conventional bourgeois dwelling.
‘The cumbrous pomp of Saxon pride
Accords not with the freeborn soul’
Byron was eighteen when he wrote these lines, and entering into manhood. Matters of identity were especially important to him, and he was in the process of cracking the mould into which he was being pressed.
‘Fortune take back these cultured lands,
Take back this name of splendid sound!
I hate the touch of servile hands,
I hate the slaves that cringe around.’
Our principal concern here, however is with the image. Given that it is the first of the main series, it may be expected to set the direction of the pictorial agenda. And that, as we have already seen, is not altogether as set by Byron.
Here the subject is intentionally of wider appeal. In fact, as Thomas Moore tells us in the Life, even at the time that Byron took up residence in the cottage, Ballater was ‘a favourite summer resort for health and gaiety’. The town had begun to develop in the middle of the eighteenth century when curative powers were discovered in its nearby mineral springs, and by the time of the arrival of young Byron was entering into its heyday. By the time of the publication of these images the Dee valley was achieving national renown.
George Fennel Robson had brought the scenery of the mountains of Scotland to pictorial prominence with his Scenery of the Grampian Mountains, illustrated by Forty-One Plates published in 1819. This included almost exactly the same view of Ballater.
The comparison makes the Byron plate by Glennie and Stanfield seem altogether more domestic, with its figures picturesquely humanizing the landscape. The underlying message here is of safe accessibility. It is a positive invitation for the reader to consider this and indeed all that follows, as a possibility that might now also be seriously contemplated by themselves.
Before moving on to the next plate we should say something here about Revd John David Glennie who provided the sketch from which Clarkson Stanfield developed this composition. Glennie was the eldest of twelve sons of William Glennie. Perhaps understandably he started an academy for boys at Dulwich. One of the pupils was Lord Byron, who attended for three years from 1799 aged 11 having just inherited his title. John David was only three in 1799 but perhaps old enough for Byron to have made some impression. The Glennie family had connections with Aberdeen for William Glennie’s father held a senior position at Aberdeen University. John David was taught drawing at the Academy by no less a figure than Samuel Prout, who went on to became by the 1830s to be one of the principal artists of European subjects, and contributed subjects to the Illustrations to Lord Byron. It seems a natural connection between Glennie, Aberdeen and Byron, and he must have been very well placed to tour the area in search of subjects for the project. The Glennie’s as a family seem have been wonderfully dynamic in an age of expanding possibility. There are good accounts of the school and the Glennie family on the DulwichSociety website and also of Samuel Prout’s connections with the Glennie Academy. J.D.Glennie published his own book of Views on the Continent in 1841, and the National Portrait Gallery has a photograph of him taken in 1862.
Clarkson Stanfield has already been introduced in relation to the title-page vignette of Villeneuve and it has been remarked that he was the principal contributor to the whole series. 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, demonstrates what confidence the publishers had in his name and his appeal. Subscribers must have begun to wonder whether they were going to see work by any other artists.
Turner certainly ended up playing second fiddle behind Stanfield. Indeed, he might well have wondered at this, for he offered to research some Byron Scottish subjects personally whilst touring Scotland in 1831. He wrote to Finden from Oban on 2 September to say that he was en route for Inverness and ‘It appears very probable that I shall be not a very great distance from the Lin of Don (Lord Byron) if there is any other subject you may want in the neighbourhood pray write to me..’ He did, in the end, secure a reasonable portion of the project, but perhaps by no means as much as he would have liked. Perhaps, however, the variety of artists involved in the project, and the churning of their various perspectives, make the whole something greater than the sum of the parts.
Next : A second treatment of Lochnagar