Byron’s Europe: Plate 6, Sintra, Portugal

This is the ninth 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 six which provides an escape from the city of Lisbon to the wooded hills around Sintra, which Byron called ‘the most beautiful village in the world.’

Sintra, Portugal: the Palacio Nacional from the east [called ‘Cintra’], 1832
Engraved by Edward Finden after a watercolour by Clarkson Stanfield, based on a sketch by Captain Elliot
Etching and line engraving on steel, image 3 3/4 x 5 9/16 in (95 x 142 m) on plate 7 x 9 ¼ ins (178 x 236 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 from a Sketch by Captn Elliot’ and right, ‘Engraved by E. Finden.’ Titled in small open caps lower centre, ‘CINTRA’. Publication line in small italics below, ‘London. Published June 1832 by J.Murray and Sold by C.Tilt, 86 Fleet Street.’
Called for as Plate 6 of volume 1 of the three-volume set of ‘Finden’s Landscape and Portrait Illustrations of Lord Byron’s Life and Works’, but in my copy [and ? any others] transposed with the Cintra after Hawkins called for in Volume 2. List of plates and commentary certainly calls for Elliot/Stanfield plate in vol.1 and Stanfield/Hawkins plate in volume 2. Issued to subscribers in Part 4, no.1.

[On a desktop screen images may be viewed full size. Right click on image and select ‘open in new tab’. Close tab to return to this page]

Sintra is a lush mountain resort overlooking the sea about fifteen miles west of Lisbon. It has long provided a cool retreat from the heat, noise and dust of the city. Byron was extravagantly impressed and described it as no less than ‘the most beautiful village in the world’. This is the first of four Sintra subjects issued in Finden’s Landscape Illustrations.

The view recorded here is that of the National Palace at Sintra as seen from the Calcada de Sao Paulo, which for many would be the first impression of Sintra when approaching from Lisbon. 

The viewpoint is just above the Casa dos Avelares, with the rocky ridge leading up to Castelo dos Mouros prominent at the left, and the Church of Santa Maria in the left middle distance. The prospect is now almost completely obscured by vegetation. It would be interesting to visit in the winter when the greenery is less dense.

There is a fine detailed study of Byron’s visit to Sintra online by Gerald Luckhurst. Romantic also gives an excellent account of Byron’s time in Portugal and of its context. The most vivid and direct report of the visit is that given in the diary of Bryon’s travelling companion, John Cam Hobhouse, transcribed in an excellent online scholarly edition by Peter Cochran. Hobhouse’s immediate impressions are vividly summarised in a letter also transcribed by Peter Cochran.

The material would richly reward the reader’s own perusal, but for our purposes we may glean that Byron and Hobhouse set off from Lisbon in an open carriage on Monday 11 July 1809, and travelled a winding road up to Sintra. Having established their base and consumed a goodly quantity of wine, bread and cheese, they headed out past the Palace at Seteais to see Monserrate, the recent exile of Britain’s wealthiest man, William Beckford. Byron went on to Mafra about ten miles north, to see the enormous Royal palace and monastery built in the early eighteenth century. That became the subject of the next plate in the Illustrations.

They spent the night at Sintra and the following day visited the Convent of La Pena perched at the highest point of the massif. This was the subject of a later plate in the Illustrations, before it was rebuilt in the 1840s as a gigantic Germanic Gothic fantasy castle. They proceeded along the mountain to the Convent of the Capuchins or Cork Covent, and we will examine a plate of that subject in due course. After lunch at the convent they went to Colores, and then returned to Sintra via Monserrate.

They spent a second night at Sintra before on Thursday 14th visiting the nearby palace of Seteais. After settling their bill at the hotel where (in Hobhouse’s account) a ‘noisy drunken dirty Irish woman gave us a monstrous bill for forty dollars’, the party returned to Lisbon to make arrangements for their onward passage.

There is little here that makes any specific connection with Stanfield’s Illustration. Neither Byron nor Hobhouse even mention the Palacio Nacional that is the central feature of this view. Nonetheless Byron was enthusiastically responsive to the general scenery. He expresses it in a letter written a few weeks later to his mother:

‘the village of Cintra about fifteen miles from the capital is perhaps in every respect the most delightful in Europe, it contains beauties of every description natural & artificial, Palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts, and precipices, {convents} on stupendous heights a distant view of the sea and the Tagus..  It unites in itself all the wildness of the Western Highlands with the verdure of the South of France’.

His immediate response was even more emphatic: In a letter sent to Reverend Francis Hodgson the day after he returned to Lisbon he waxed: “I must just observe that the village of Cintra is the most beautiful, perhaps, in the world.”

And there is fulsome reference to it in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the first major poem that resulted from this expedition.

One theme that emerges very strongly in Childe Harold is the decay of many of the palaces. This was much exacerbated by the flight of the aristocracy along with the Royal family in 1807 and led Byron to muse more generally on the fragility of human endeavour. Even the greatest of achievements can unravel into venality and waste.

Monserrate 2017. Photograph by Professor David Hill

The principal spur to Byron’s imagination was the Palace of Monserrate. A detailed history may be read here. Briefly a new house was built in the park in the late 1780s. In the 1790s it was occupied by William Beckford, Britain’s wealthiest man, who made improvements to the house and to the gardens. After a fallow period it was fabulously redeveloped in the nineteenth century by another Englishman Francis Cook and survives splendidly today to welcome visitors.

It was hollow and deserted when Byron visited in 1809:

Sintra is a place of botanical riot. It is a wonderful place to reside, no doubt, but the greenery is constantly looking to reclaim its ground. Indeed views are at a premium throughout the dense woodland covering all but the rocky tops of these hills. 

Wherever views there were amongst the trees have been snapped up for palaces and villas. In the two centuries since Byron’s visit the scenery has been more jealously privatised than almost anywhere else in the world. The result is that the villa developers have sequestered almost every last glimpse of scenic possibility.

The streets are thronged with those seeking; by car, by bus, by moped, by scooter, or on foot. to see more than a few yards, and enjoy something beyond kerbs, tarmac, rendering and street furniture hemmed in by greenery.

So what might the armchair traveller dreaming of Europe in the early 1830s have made of this image? If we pick up our logic that aesthetics are generally constructed by their opposites, then the general domicile of the bourgeois reader would have been the drawing room of a Georgian terrace in [for example] Bloomsbury, Bath, Cheltenham, Edinburgh, York or Scarborough. Such a reader might well have been drawn to the idea that Europe still contained landscapes where strange and irregular buildings rose from lush jungle. Such a reader might also have been glad to find such a place was not quite primeval, but rather civilized as here by church and villa.

Sintra’s greenery, however, has constantly attempt to reclaim its ground, and the contemporary ecological reader might find that somewhat cheering. Without constant attention, effort and expense, the villas retain their tendency to decay. There is a wonderful website ‘sintraemruinas‘ created by Philipe de Fiuza which plots the very large number of buildings in the Sintra area that require attention.  Near the viewpoint of the present plate, the website documents the parlous condition of the Casa dos Avelares. This appears to be the successor of the building at the bottom right of our image.

It has recently functioned as a hotel, but appears currently to be dozing. The truth is that dozens besides find it difficult to justify continuing significant investment. But why? Sintra is an extraordinary environment, and near to a major centre of wealth accumulation, and easy to access from almost anywhere in the world.

There is a wonderful experience to be had at Sintra, but not on its roads. Who would want a place rattled and choked by passing traffic? Tour buses, manic cars, builder’s lorries, delivery trucks, vans, motorcyles? Even in the 1830s road traffic was seen as a menace and a nuisance. So the traffic here in the engraving of Sintra would have been seen as blessed relief. If this environment is to be rehabilitated, perhaps the traffic might be the issue to address first. How splendid a place might this become if the passing traffic consisted mainly of donkeys and pedestrians?

NEXT: A visit to the monks at Mafra

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s