This is the eighth 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 five which offers a prospect over the river Tagus to Lisbon during turbulent times.
Everyone thought that Lisbon looked wonderful from across the water. Byron wrote:
What beauties doth Lisboa first unfold!
Her image floating on that noble tide,
Which poets vainly pave with sands of gold,
But now whereon a thousand keels did ride,
In this plate we view the city across the river Tagus from high ground to the west of the Fort at Almada. The cannons stationed on its ramparts commanded the whole of the anchorage.
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Readers might have been confused by the inscribed title. ‘Almeida’ is a castle in north-east Portugal. Almada, rather, is the fishermen’s village of the Tagus estuary, situated on the peninsula facing the city. It survives well to this day, albeit untidily in parts, with its riverside sheds and wharves in decay and the town now expanded to become a fully developed suburb of Lisbon, connected to the city by the 25 April suspension bridge. The fort site survives, although almost completely rebuilt, latterly in use as a police training centre.
The view of Lisbon from hereabouts, however, has recently been given a millennium makeover in the form of the Elevador Panorâmico da Boca do Vento, part of an extensive recovery plan for this area. The riverside wharf of Ginjal below left in the image, now makes an attractive excursion from Lisbon, and the Casa de Cerca Centre for Contemporary Art, which overlooks the top of the lift, provides a vantage point from which to enjoy a similar view.
Until I can revisit Lisbon for the purposes of photography, I can offer a good alternative taken by Eduardo Dantas and shared on Google Earth.
The exact viewpoint is a little further west near the Convent of Sao Paulo. We can see the predecessor of the present Casa de Cerca in the middle distance and immediately to the right of the fort is the Church of Santiago, and further left the Church of La Misericordia.
Almost exactly the same view was drawn by Colonel Batty and engraved by William Miller in 1830 for Batty’s Select Views of some of the Principal Cities of Europe, which was issued in parts from 1830 and bound complete in 1832..
There is an excellent website devoted to all matters historical relating to Almada with sections that deal with the castle, comparative views and related treatments. There are some earlier representations of the castle, but these are mostly concerned with its military design. The images by Batty and Page appear to be the first representations of the scenic potential of the site.
Batty’s engraving can claim the prize of being the first to be published, appearing two years before the William Page/ Clarkson Stanfield image being considered here. Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Batty (1789 – 1848) contributed subjects to the Byron project in his own right and will be introduced more fully in relation to his first, plate 9 [Cadiz]. For now, however, we may record that he made his observations of Almada during a sojourn in Portugal 1826-7 as Field Assistant to General William Henry Clinton.
Here, rather, we should perhaps give our principal attention to the artist that supplied the original sketch for the present composition, William Page (1794-1872). At the age of twenty-two, he took himself off for a tour and residence in Greece and Turkey that lasted until 1824. He returned to England as the major authority on Eastern Mediterranean scenery. His sketches became a vital source for the Illustrations to Lord Byron. He contributed forty subjects in total, to a range of artists including J.M.W.Turner and David Roberts besides Clarkson Stanfield, and was eventually invited to contribute watercolours in his own right. The British Museum has several original examples and the London dealer Karen Taylor has recently handled a fine group of drawings and watercolours. The catalogue is available online.
The British Museum entry cites two detailed scholarly treatments of him:
J.H. Money, `The Life And Work Of William Page (1794 1872)’, The Old Water Colour Society’s Club, Vol.XLVII, 1972, pp.9-30
C.W.J. Eliot, `Lord Byron, Father Paul, And The Artist William Page’, Hesperia Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Vol.XLIV, No.4, 1975, pp.410- 25.
The latter gives serious consideration to the Greek Byron subjects, and [hopefully!] we will be able to examine each of them in due course. For the present, however, it is perhaps frustrating that Page’s original sketch for this Lisbon subject is untraced and therefore undated. Eliot, however dates all the Greek subjects to Page’s first major period abroad, that is, before 1824. That would make his sketch, and thus this engraving, the earliest scenic representation of this subject. Money proposes later trips abroad in 1826-31 and 1835-6, but Eliot finds no evidence in the work to substantiate that.
The view over the water might have been superb but conditions in the city were a quite different matter. When Byron arrived in Lisbon 7 July 1809, it was anything but a holiday destination. In fact it was enduring one of the worst periods in its entire history.
Romantic poets.org gives an excellent account of Byron’s stay there and of its context. Lisbon had barely recovered from a devastating earthquake in 1755 when in 1807 the French invaded the Iberian Peninsula and the Portuguese Royal family and pretty much the entire court and aristocracy fled into exile in Brazil.
British forces under the command of Arthur Wellesley [later titled Duke of Wellington] landed in Portugal on 1 August 1808 and marched upon Lisbon defeating the French in a decisive battle 17-21 August. After an armistice Lisbon fell under British control, albeit insecurely, but sufficiently to permit a safe passage for the poet. The evacuation of the court, however, and subsequent occupation had destroyed the economy and beggared the citizens. Byron was dismayed at how dirty and insecure were the streets and how wretched and desperate were the people.
The most vivid and direct report of the visit is given in the diary of Byron’s travelling companion, John Cam Hobhouse transcribed in an excellent online scholarly edition by Peter Cochran. Hobhouse’s unhappy account is vividly summarised in a letter also transcribed by Peter Cochran.
Any informed reader in the 1830s would have understood that Lisbon remained a troubled city. A British reader, however, might not have been inclined to recognise that those troubles were in part the product of British involvement. After the Peninsular War and the banishment of Napoleon, the British remained in charge, albeit increasingly resented. The administration was expelled in 1820 and an independent Liberal administration instituted, but the British returned for two years 1826-28 before the full-scale Portuguese civil war broke out; a war which was continuing when this plate appeared.
Even without specific knowledge the thoughtful viewer might have inferred some issues. This is plainly a place of strategic significance, commerce, communications and historical and present contestation. Despite its southerly situation, it is not settled. Instead of serene skies, this is a place of fitful sunshine and passing storms. It is also a place of military exercise. Warships line up amongst the commercial shipping, and soldiers perform their drills on the land outside the fort. It is a matter for our imagination as to which faction the troops might belong, but they could very well have been British. And given all that Byron observed there, the foreground figures seem to suggest some question as to the stake in any of this of the general population.
All that notwithstanding, the view does invoke one particular association with Byron. Liberated abroad, his imaginative quest affected an Olympian character. He had not been long in Lisbon before he launched himself to swim across the Tagus. It is not clear whether he took [or heeded] any advice, or whether he had a support vessel rowing alongside, but this is not an inconsiderable undertaking. It is only for accomplished open sea swimmers. The channel is a mile wide and beset by strong tides, and even a well-organised modern team found it a challenge in 2012. It is recorded that he swam at least twice as far as the width, and was a good two hours in the water. If current conditions relent sufficiently to permit a visit to the site to take a photograph, I think I’ll take the ferry.
Next: To the most beautiful village in the world.