Byron’s Europe: Plate 4, Belem Tower, Lisbon

This the seventh instalment of a tour through the Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron published between 1832 and 1834.  Here we turn to plate four which commemorates Byron’s first footfall in Europe, at Lisbon in Portugal.


Belem Castle, Lisbon, 1832
Engraved by Edward Finden after a watercolour by Clarkson Stanfield
Etching and line engraving on steel, image 3 3/8 x 5 3/8 in (86 x 138 mm) on plate 7 3/8 x 9 3/8 ins (186 x 248 mm) on medium-weight, slightly textured [?machine-made] wove etching paper, slightly reddened with age, 11 ½ x 9 ins (291 x 229 mm).
Inscribed in lower margin, immediately below image left in small italic; ‘Drawn by C. Stanfield’ and right, ‘Engraved by E. Finden.’ Titled in small open caps lower centre, ‘BELEM CASTLE, LISBON’. Publication line in small italics below, ‘London. Published Jany. 1 1832 by J.Murray and Sold by C.Tilt, 86 Fleet Street.’
Published as plate 4 of volume 1 of the three-volume set of ‘Finden’s Landscape and Portrait Illustrations of Lord Byron’s Life and Works’, and issued to subscribers in part no.1, plate 2, 16 January 1832.

The original published sequence of the Illustrations to Lord Byron lost little time in sending the poet abroad. The subscribers’ edition offered this as its second plate. There were several UK subjects planned to illuminate his origins and attachments to his native country, but apart from those of the Scottish mountains, the rest were held back until the European dimensions were fully developed.

Byron left Britain for his first Grand Tour on 2 July 1809. He took ship in Falmouth and after a voyage of four days made his first European footfall in Lisbon. It is as if his plan was to simply leap over the mundane preliminaries of the north and go direct for the sundrenched south. In truth the north of Europe was closed to Byron because of the Napoleonic Wars, but by the time that this series was published, France, Belgium, Germany, Holland, the Alps and Italy had all been thoroughly colonised by tourism. The Iberian Peninsula was still relatively untravelled. In the early 1830s Byron’s peregrinations played directly to a picture of expanding consciousness.

The subject is one of the pre-eminent landmarks of historic Portugal, the Torre Belem. The tower stands just off the north shore of the river Tagus about 5 miles west of the centre of Lisbon. Today it is a good ninety minutes’ walk, and not especially pleasant especially along the shore, with its busy road, railway and variously unwelcoming yards, warehousing, and industrial shipping infrastructure.

Most visitors take the tram, tour bus or train. However one approaches it is quite a surprise, with its big tower and bastion reflecting the light, and its creamily fine detail, part Arab, part Venetian. It was built to control shipping in and out of the safe haven of Lisbon and the sheltered waters of the Tagus estuary.  It was completed in the year of Leonardo’s death, 1519, the same year in which the great Portuguese navigator Magellan set out to first circumnavigate the globe.

For centuries it saluted departing ships and greeted their return, and occasionally [mostly unsuccessfully] tried to repel unwelcome visitors. It became an icon of Portuguese maritime endeavour, and remains like some oriental marble trade ship to represent the great Age of Discoveries.

Photograph by Professor David Hill

Surprisingly, given that there are thousands of photographs of it online, there are relatively few from exactly the same east-south-easterly angle as this. Google Earth, however, has a good one by Alexander Dietzsch

I assume this is because hardly anyone approaches by boat any more. Another good comparison may be found on the website of Sight Sail, a company that arranges sightseeing sailing expeditions from Lisbon. Given the tower’s significance in seafaring history, such an approach would seem to be de rigeur, even if it might turn out to be rather more expensive than the tram!

We have already been introduced to the artist Clarkson Stanfield, who was the most frequent contributor to the whole series, and in the first few numbers its only artist. The original watercolour survives, and is reproduced online on a commercial image reproduction site, but sadly, without any citation of the collection:

Stanfield was coming to real success at the time this was published. He had travelled quite extensively, to the Alps with William Brockedon, the author of the commentary to the plates, through Northern Europe, to France, along the Rhine and to Venice, but he had never been to Lisbon. None of the published editions give any indication of his source for this composition. In any event he was not well served. In truth Stanfield’s depiction bears only a general resemblance to the tower.

The structure that Byron saw was essentially the same as that built in 1519 with the addition of a two-storey barracks built over the deck in the 1580s. The barracks were removed in 1845-6 and numerous ornamental details added, but apart from that the present structure is the same as that originally built. It is remarkable then, how little exact correspondence there is between anything in Stanfield’s depiction, and the structure as it ever existed.

There are various records of Belem from the century up to its restoration. The todocollection website [a Malaga-based ebay-type site for the sale and exchange of memorabilia articles] has sold engravings from 1707

and 1755

which show the tower from the same angle as Stanfield.

The National Maritime Museum has a wonderful watercolour of HMS Victory off Belem by Thomas Butterworth in 1797. The contrast in scale and gunnery power is striking, but the tower is also seen from the same angle:

Watercolour world has a drawing from a similar angle by William Paget active c.1775-1825, which records the appearance in Byron’s time:

Perhaps the most telling comparison is with an engraving after a drawing by Lt. Col. Batty F.R.S. which was engraved by R. Brandard for Batty’s book ‘Select Views of some of the Principal Cities of Europe’ published London 1832.

Batty was drafted in to the Byron project to provide accurate sources for its engravings, and we shall have occasion to consider his contribution very shortly. For now however, the comparison gives us only to wonder how completely hopeless was Stanfield’s source. One wonders whether the appearance of Batty’s engraving at almost the same time as Stanfield’s made the publishers of our work realise that they needed a more reliable source of sketches.

Not that it was at all likely that anyone would notice. In 1832 readers were still [but only just] in the age before photography. Only a few people in the world would have known Torre Belem well enough to recognise any issue. In any case to see exactly what the issues were would require being anchored in a boat at exactly the right spot in the Tagus with the engraving in one’s hands.

Photography changed all that, but it is a moot point, in any case, as to how well a photograph represents a place. If I reflect on my own experience of Torre Belem; my first sight was from the train from Lisbon to Cascais. The train rattled down the middle of a busy commuter highway. Steel poles, gantries, graffiti, cables, signs, miles of scruffy wharfeside warehouses and offices on one side, dwellings of greater or lesser decay on the other, all, presumably bemoaning the fact that the view was a great deal worse than when they were built. And then it appeared, across the road, between the trees, seemingly charged with light. Much bigger than this photograph would suggest.

Experience of things takes place in the context of time, space and embodiment. It impinges on mood, purpose, expectation, attention, interest, focus and priority. Half the people on the train were teenagers. They didn’t seem to notice it at all. For me though it was a bit of a shock. I knew it was coming up, was looking forward to seeing it, and then suddenly it was there, and not at all in conformity with what I was expecting, albeit those expectations were founded in photographs and, dare I say it, in an engraving.

My principal interest here, however, is in the significance of the image in the context of expanding European consciousness. In the mind of a reader in the 1830s the idea of Europe was forged through war. When Byron visited Lisbon in 1809, the city was a British beachhead in the Peninsular War against Napoleon. Even though that war ended in 1815, and civilized relations between countries resumed, allowing peaceful travel and tourism to flourish, Portugal remained convulsed.

In 1832 when this image was published, the country was in the grip of civil war. The monarchy was split into competing claims between the liberalist Pedro and his absolutist brother, Miguel.  At the moment of publication Pedro was gathering his forces in the Azores for a full-scale on the mainland. As it turns out, it was another twenty years before settled times returned to the country.

For the general reader in 1832 the Torre Belem offered a general symbol of arrivals and departure, and in its exotic architecture, however approximately rendered, an introduction to a culture with deep, distinct, and attractive difference. For the informed reader it represented the difficulties in attaining stable enough conditions to make being there a civilized experience .

The truth is, that if the series as a whole held out the prospect of travel across the continent even to the likes of a Miss Chaworth, as we saw in the previous instalment, not all of that continent was as settled or as unified as one might desire for civilized intercourse, exchange and development.

And there I was. For most of my adult life, thinking that most of those difficulties had been overcome.

Next: Across the Tagus

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