This the fifth instalment of a tour through the Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron published between 1832 and 1834. Here we turn to the second plate, which transports us to the Scottish landscape at its most Sublime.
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The view is taken from rising ground above Alltdourie, looking south-east over Invercauld House to the peak of Lochnagar. The line of sight is plainly established by the perfect alignment of the house and distant peak. Invercauld has been a seat of the Farquharson family since the fourteenth century. In Byron’s day it had evolved into a large two-storey traditional Scottish baronial house with crow-stepped gables, but in 1875 it was redeveloped as a fantasy castle.
Invercauld is a thriving estate to this day, and when times allow a major departure point for adventurous excursions into the high Cairngorm mountains. Unusually, however, no comparable photograph of is view presents itself on the internet, so it will require a site visit to verify whether the view is obtainable today.
This is the second view of Lochnagar to feature in the Illustrations to Byron. The first (plate 1) was engraved to illustrate the first volume of the separately published Life and Works. That volume contained Thomas Moore’s account of Byron’s early life. The present plate was engraved to illustrate volume seven, which contained Byron’s early poetry. Specifically it was intended to illustrate the poem ‘Lachin y Gair’, which was written when he was eighteen, and published in his first commercially published collection ‘Hours of Idleness’, which appeared in 1807.
Byron himself tells us that ‘about eight years of age, after an attack of scarlet fever at Aberdeen, I was removed, by medical advice, into the Highlands, and from this period I date my love of mountainous countries.’ As we heard in the previous instalment, he lived in a cottage a couple of miles east of Ballater. The present viewpoint is quite some distance from there, eighteen miles west by road via Balmoral, so a substantial excursion on horseback or in a light carriage. There is no evidence that Byron ever took in in this exact view, but he did make an excursion to the Linn of Dee, where the river flows through a narrow, rocky, passage, seven miles further beyond Braemar. That could have been the end of him. Moore relates that he caught his club foot on heather and would have fallen to his doom, had he not been caught by the accompanying gillie.
In poetic memory his encumbrance played no part.:
‘There my young footsteps in infancy wander’ed;
My cap was the bonnet, my cloak was the plaid’.
On chieftan’s long perish’d my memory ponder’d;
As daily I strode through the pine-cover’d glade.’
He styles himself, not without some justification, the descendant of Highland Chiefs of Yore. As the industrial revolution and social immuration progressed during the eighteenth century, so the idea of Scotland, took on increasing Romantic appeal. It offered a sense of space, rootedness and healthful contact with the elements of which bourgeois lifestyles seemed to have become bereft. In Byron’s perspective it was a condition he associated with England:
‘England! Thy beauties are tame and domestic
To one who has roved on the mountains afar:
O for the crags that are wild and majestic!
The steep frowning glories of dark Loch na Garr!’
The form of the poem is of some old minstrel, whose refrain in every verse is to ‘dark Loch na Garr’. It fits into a European-wide reaching into folk traditions in search of grounding. In Britain its chief exponents in Britain at this time was Sir Walter Scott, in Germany the Brothers Grimm. It is not hard to see how attractive an idea it was that Highland Mist somehow still coiled around the poet, and how already exotic was the beginning made by the illustrated series.
Byron’s leg prevented him ever roaming as feeling among mountains as he would have liked. But as ever, impediment proves a foil to the imagination, and Byron’s poetry, and these illustrations are full of such opposites.
Whilst the illustration sits in quite loose relation with Byron, it opens onto a space of Sublime escape. The pictorial discovery of Scotland had been progressing since the middle of the eighteenth century. It had been given a spur by Turner after his tour of the Highlands in 1801. Sublimesites.co has already considered a couple of Turner’s Scottish subjects [see here and here].
But no-one treated them with such quiet sublimity as George Fennel Robson (1788-1833). His is a spectacular life story. He was born in Durham, one of twenty-three [23!] children. He learned drawing from a local master and went up to London aged eighteen with £5 in his pocket. In 1808 he made enough money from publishing a print of Durham to tour the mountains of Scotland, and they became his enduring subject culminating in the publication in 1819 of Scenery of the Grampian Mountains, illustrated by Forty-One Plates. These made his reputation, and he became one of the favourites of the Watercolour Society in the later 1810s and 1820s. These hand-coloured aquatints of the Grampians are some of the grandest, since understated, of all treatments of the Scottish hills. The full series has been published online by Edinburgh Libraries, and higher resolution copies may be purchased. One of his subjects was exactly the same view as in the Illustrations.
The contrast is quite striking. The 1819 treatment is set in the morning of a day that promises to be fresh. The air seems cool and sunlight precious. Clouds billow up in the south, and at best the day promises to be changeable. At the beginning of a day it is a call to action, and for vigour and resilience. The distant summit of Lochnagar presents an imposing challenge. From the nearest permanent civilization at Balmoral it is a fifteen-mile eight-hour round trip to the summit involving over 1000m of ascent. A grand day out in summer for young legs and respiratory systems. From my present perspective, I’m afraid, potentially terminal.
So personally speaking, I’m drawn to the treatment here. The time of day is now set at evening and in midsummer. Conditions are still, clear and glimmering. There is no invitation to march off at this time in the direction of the summit. More, rather, to gather round and settle down. Preferably around the hearth in the great house below. It’s wonderful to be here, yet also entirely civilized. And within a few years of this being published, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria took up summer residence at Balmoral, which nestles in the valley just out of sight to the left.
George Fennel Robson died in 1833 before the series of the illustrations to Lord Byron was completed. Yet given that he made a formative contribution to defining the image of the Scottish Mountains, it seem entirely fitting that at least this example of his work should have been included. He was only forty-five, but his demise was entirely in keeping with the changing times. He contracted food poisoning from the catering on board a steam ship from London to Stockton on Tees. He struggled home, but died a few days later. So this view of Lochnagar was one of his last public performances. It seems rather a shame, then, that the Findens managed to give his name incorrectly.
Next : A brief Romance before setting sail