Byron’s Europe: Plate 7, Mafra, Portugal

This is the tenth 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 seven which extends Byron’s explorations of the area around Lisbon to the enormous Royal Palace and Monastery of Mafra. It is one of the major accomplishments of the Portuguese Baroque.

Mafra, Portugal, 1832
Engraved by William Finden after a watercolour by David Roberts from a sketch by C.Landseer
Etching and line engraving on steel, image 3 3/4 x 5 1/2 in (95 x 140 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 Roman; ‘Drawn by D. Roberts from a Sketch by C.Landseer.’ and right, ‘Engraved by W. Finden.’ Titled in small open caps lower centre, ‘MAFRA’. Publication line in small italics below, ‘London. Published June 1832 by J.Murray and Sold by C.Tilt, 86 Fleet Street.’
Published as Plate 7 of volume 1 of the three-volume set of ‘Finden’s Landscape and Portrait Illustrations of Lord Byron’s Life and Works’, 1832, and issued to subscribers in Part 4, no.3.

Mafra lies some 28 kilometres north-west of Lisbon.  Construction of the Royal Palace and Convent began in 1717 under King John V of Portugal and stopped in 1755. Despite being one of the architectural highlights of all Portugal and it being brought early here to wider consciousness, it is today relatively unfamiliar to British visitors, and still not altogether easy to reach without one’s own transport.

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The engraving records the view across the west-facing main front. It is almost perfectly preserved to this day, except for the accretion of street furniture, signage and traffic. There is a number of excellent comparative photos on Google Earth. That by Heliodoro Delos is particularly close.

According to the inscription it was painted by David Roberts from a sketch by C. Landseer. Charles Landseer was born in 1799, the son of a well-known engraver, John Landseer, and brother of the famous animal painter Sir Edwin Landseer. In 1823 he travelled to Portugal and Brazil as part of a diplomatic mission led by Sir Charles Stuart. A significant group of drawings from that tour were exhibited at the British Institution in 1828.

In the late 1820s David Roberts was just beginning to establish his reputation for continental subjects. In the 1830s he became famous for his pictures of Spanish subjects, and was one of the first international artists to take a serious interest in subjects on the Iberian Peninsular. At this stage, however, he had travelled no further than northern Europe, and it was possibly his involvement with the Byron project that inspired him in 1832, the year in which this plate was published, to make a tour to Spain and Tangiers. He returned with a wonderful stock of sketches and on the basis of those, and on later travels to the Middle East, perhaps also inspired by Byron, built a very successful career.

The palace and convent are gargantuan in scale and ostentation. The building represents the translation of the riches that poured into Portuguese coffers from gold and diamond mines in Brazil. It was started in as a convent for seventeen Franciscan friars, but burgeoning mining revenues rapidly fed its ambitions. It is said that the palace consumed the entire revenues of gold mining in Brazil. At its peak construction employed 45,000 labourers with scant regard for their health and safety to judge from the resulting one thousand, three hundred and eighty-three deaths on site. One of its great achievements, however, is the royal library housing 35,000 volumes covering all western learning from the fourteenth century onwards.

By Joseolgon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

It seems unfortunate, then, that the Royal family found the palace rooms gloomy, and used it most often as a hunting lodge. It was a settled residence for just one year just before the Royal exile to Brazil in 1807.

Byron described Mafra in letter to his mother of 11 August: Near this place.. is the palace of Mafra the boast of Portugal, as it might be of any country, in point of magnificence without elegance, there is a convent annexed, the monks who possess large revenues are courteous enough, & understand Latin, so that we had a long conversation, they have a large Library..

And in his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron made stern observation of the dissipation of wealth into ostentation

The Lusians’ luckless queen is Queen Maria I (1734-1816) who suffered relentless setbacks in her reign, and from the later 1780s suffered debilitating deliriums. It is perhaps worth remarking that the ‘Babylonian whore’ is a Biblical personification of the debasing attractions of worldly worship, and a phrase that if considered at all today, might appear radically oppositional to our own materiality.

It seems unlikely that the contemporary reader would have drawn such specific moral lessons from this composition of Mafra alone. Although Portugal was beset by civil war at the time of publication, it is, rather, the general magnificence of the site that would have impressed. In terms of European consciousness that might provoked a variety of responses. For the Europhile it might have signified how much of excellence our neighbours had to offer. For the jingoist, yet another example of the tendency of foreigners to run amuck when not checked by British good taste and breeding.

The commentary to the three-volume bound edition certainly tried to encourage the latter. Brockedon quotes from James Cavanah Murphy’s 1795 book, Travels in Portugal. Murphy was an architect and antiquarian, and devoted a good deal of his life to the study of Portuguese Gothic and Spanish Moorish architecture. He was Irish, but nonetheless could affect the hauteur of the grandest of English Milordi:

‘the treasure lavished upon it, if properly applied, would rise a pile much superior ..  in point of architecture; but unfortunately the designer of it had neither a mind to conceive, nor a hand to execute, a design for a glebe-house, much less a basilick and royal palace.’

The monks of Mafra, however, seem to have been possessed of the wit to turn the tables on any signs of superciliousness. In showing Byron round the library, he was somewhat taken aback by their enquiry as to whether ‘the English have any books in their Country?’

To the British reader in the 1830s Mafra would also have represented the pre-industrial order. A splendid superstructure built on agrarian foundations. So the well-spaced out figures in front of the buildings stood for a stable, unthreatening, peasantry and merchantry. The informed reader might know that at this time the Portuguese citizenry was riven by strife between absolutist monarchists and liberal parliamentarians, but a reflexive perception would have been conscious that public spaces in Britain were thronged with a restive industrial proletariat that itself was demanding political reform. As we have already heard, the first vote on the British Parliamentary Reform Act in October 1832 was defeated with riotous consequences.

Finally, we might draw some Brexit perspective. The current Google Earth Streetview image tells yet another story of activity alongside the structure. And indeed it is against a background of dissolving nationalisms, globalisation, and separatism that our relationship with those foreigners is being redrawn. ‘Take back control’ they say, but I have hardly heard it asked by whom or for whom. In any case we can at least admit that nothing ever stands still. I rather liked that fact that the Streetview image and our engraving have something in common. As Brockedon noted, right at the end of his commentary:

‘This vastness [of the Palace] is admirably given by the fine effect of throwing a mass of shadow across the middle of the building, as if a cloud could only obscure a part of it at the same moment.’

It’s reassuring to be reminded that everything is in motion. Even Big Ideas pass like shadows. Idiotic ones, we might hope, even more quickly.

Next: A Maid of Zaragoza

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