Byron’s Europe: Plate 13, Patras, Greece

This is the sixteenth instalment of a tour through the Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron published between 1832 and 1834.  Here we take our first footsteps on Greek soil and begin an encounter with both the ancient world and the contemporary East.


Patras, Greece, 1832
Engraved by Edward Finden after a watercolour by George Cattermole, based on a sketch by William Page
Etching and line engraving on steel, image 3 7/16 x 5 1/16 in (88 x 129 mm) on plate 7 x 9 1/4 ins (179 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 G.Cattermole from a sketch by W.Page’ and right, ‘Engraved by E. Finden.’ Titled in small open caps lower centre, ‘PATRAS’. Publication line in small Roman below, ‘London. Published 1832, by J. Murray, & Sold by C. Tilt, 86, Fleet Street.’
Issued as Plate 13 of volume 1 (1833) of the three-volume bound edition of ‘Finden’s Landscape and Portrait Illustrations of Lord Byron’s Life and Works’ and first issued to subscribers in Part 7, plate 4, 1832

Byron’s first footfall in Greece was at Patras. Now the most important port in western Greece, it was already in 1809 a significant outlet to the Ionian coast, Italy and the western Mediterranean. It exported currants and wine, and was home to several wealthy traders and foreign interests.

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Byron sailed there from Malta on the naval frigate HMS Hyperion and after a couple of days skirmishing in the Gulf of Patras the ship hove into view of the city on Tuesday 26 September.

Byron’s travelling companion John Cam Hobhouse recorded the day in his journal:

Came near it as the sun rose – beautiful appearance of the town and neighbourhood to the right, looking like the greenest fields and groves, rising up the mountain sides – the minarets glittering in the sun – striking view – ancient Greece. The Gulf of Corinth small at the entrance, with high rocky mountains to the north.

They had precisely one hour ashore:

At half after ten, for the first time, landed in the Peloponessus, in a currantground to the left (the north) of the town, to shoot pistols with Lord Byron. Very much struck to see, at the landing-place, the Turks with pistols and daggers stuck in their belts – at half-past eleven, heard the signal from the brig for weighing – on board after leaving something for Mr Strané, English consul at Patrass, a good kind man, very ugly. Sailed for Prevesa.

Hobhouse’s Journal is transcribed in an excellent online scholarly edition by Peter Cochran. The account adds no more to this brief first sojourn in Patras, but does suggest a rather piratical aspect to the British navy’s ‘policing’ of the seas in those days. Byron’s correspondence is also transcribed by Peter Cochran, and the Romantic Circles website has an outline chronology of the whole tour.

Byron and Hobhouse returned to Patras on Wednesday 22 Nov 1809 after a two-month tour of noth-western Greece and southern Albania. They stayed two weeks and enjoyed the hospitality of the Imperial French Consul, Mr Paul, who happened to be the cousin of the English consul, Mr Strane. Both must have been equally interested in hearing the intelligence that Byron and Hobhouse gathered on their travels. Byron is hardly mentioned by Hobhouse, but during the past weeks had started work on his epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and must by now have been deeply immersed in it. Hobhouse meantime, seems to have stayed in bed until midday most days and then sauntered around until Mr Paul provided dinner and an evening game of dice. They availed themselves of his hospitality until Monday 4 Dec when they left heading east for Delphi, Athens and beyond.

Byron visited Patras for a third time on 29 July 1810. In the interim he had visited Istanbul, and returned to Athens. Embarking on a short tour of the Peloponnese from Athens, he returned to Patras to see his consular contacts there. He stayed to 7 August before moving on to spend a week or so in Tripolitza before returning to Athens by 19 August.

He was back for a fourth time by 25 September having more business with the British Consul, except on this occasion was struck down by illness. There was an outbreak of fever in Athens and Byron appears to have brought it with him.  He was laid up for the best part of a week, and then further detained by his boy, Nicolo going down under the same affliction. The party was sufficiently recovered by 13 October for them to return to Athens. 

So what might the image have represented to a contemporary reader in terms of European consciousness? As for Byron it is the first landing in Greece, and as for Hobhouse in surveying the town rising up to the mountains the first things to strike the eye are ‘minarets glittering in the sun’. This is not the Greece of Homer or Phidias, but rather the Ottoman East.


Sir Robert Smirke the younger, 1781–1867, British, Patras, Greece, 1803, Watercolor and graphite on moderately thick, moderately textured, beige, wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1977.14.464

Nor is the engraving altogether characteristic of Patras as it was then. The city was dominated by its fort. The Yale Center for British Art at New Haven USA has a fine sketch by Sir Robert Smirke drawn just six years before Byron’s first visit.

Our image, However, suggests, rather, a sleepy village, enjoyed by a few lethargic cottagers lounging about in exotic costume. There is an ancient domed church to the left, but the most prominent recent additions are two minarets. Exotically costumed figures sit around or carouse in the street. Nothing much appears to happen here apart from occasional callings to the Mosque.

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The subject may be identified as the old Pantokrator Church. The original church was built on the site of a Roman temple of Jupiter c.900AD. It was dedicated to St Mark whilst the Venetians were in charge and then served as a mosque under Ottoman rule and it is the latter end of that phase that is represented here.

The church and the local area has been completely rebuilt although the general layout remains recognisable. The area seems anything but timeless now. There is lots of graffiti and dramatically unequal levels of investment and maintenance.

Pantokratoros, Patras, looking south with the Pantokrator church. From roughly the same viewpoint as the engraving, but with the church hidden behind the building to the left, and the Panachaiko mountains in the distance

Modern Patras seems boiling almost out of control with economic activity and development. It was a very different story at the time the engraving was published. The Greek War of independence was launched at Patras by the Metropolitan Bishop of this church in 1821. The town quickly fell to the Greeks, but the Turkish garrison clung on in the fort until they surrendered to the French in 1828. In the interval the town was pretty much deserted and destroyed.. Only a few buildings survived apart from the church and the fort, and returnees lived in shanty shacks by the road. A complete new town plan had to be drawn up.


Plan of Patras in 1829 and proposed new town to be built on the ruins of the old, by Stamatis Voulgaris. Source:
https://www.archaeology.wiki/blog/2016/04/11/changes-urban-landscape-19th-century-patras/

Old Pantokrator church had eventually to be demolished and completely rebuilt as the present structure. The engraving is one of the few records of the old church.

The contemporary reader would know that since the war ended in 1828 Greek rule had been established as an independent nation state. The British had allied with the French to defeat the Turks, and Europe could now construct an identity for itself that traced its ancestry all the way to the classical and Homeric past. This represents the beginning of a sense of Europe and of anxieties over where its boundaries should lie, and who should be included or not. Acknowledge it or not, those same anxieties were the prime driver of Brexit.

Next: The Ionian Islands

Postscripts:

1 The artists:

This is the first of a dozen Greek landscape subjects, ten of them provided by William Page. We have already been introduced to Page in relation to plate 5 [Lisbon from Almada Fort].

The two principal accounts of him are

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

and

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 is available online at JSTOR.

Following extensive travel in Greece and Turkey between 1817 and 1824, Page was an expert on the scenery of these regions and was the principal source of sketches for Finden’s Illustrations to Lord Byron. He must have made the sketch for the present subject before the mayhem of the Wars of Greek Independence broke out in 1821.

George Cattermole was just entering his thirties when he painted this watercolour. It was the first of three contributions to the Illustrations, all based on sketches by William Page. He made his name drawing topographical subjects for John Britton’s Antiquities of England, and came into some demand providing subjects for the annuals and illustrated novels and poetry series that proliferated in the 1830s. He was a friend of Charles Dickens and numerous literary figures. He went on to become preeminent in historical costume compositions and achieved something of a European reputation, winning awards in Amsterdam and Belgium.

2. Culinary Sublime

We have already had cause to wonder at the capacity of something so slight as an image little more than five inches wide to achieve a sense of sublimity. The effect is hard to create and easy to dispel. In reading around this subject I was struck by the discovery that not long after it was published, the image was translated onto a fine Spode china dinner dish. 

Indeed several of Byron’s Views were utilized for an extensive dinnerware range, available in at least three colours, there being sets in green and white and black and white, besides the blue.

Source:https://hansonslive.hansonsauctioneers.co.uk/m/lot-details/index/catalog/90/lot/39133?url=%2Fm%2Fview-auctions%2Fcatalog%2Fid%2F90%3Fview%3Dgrid%26page%3D3
Source:https://hansonslive.hansonsauctioneers.co.uk/m/lot-details/index/catalog/90/lot/39132?url=%2Fm%2Fview-auctions%2Fcatalog%2Fid%2F90%3Fview%3Dgrid%26page%3D3

My first thought was how commerce might so readily render the sublime bathetic, but the more I think about this, the more significant it seems to become. It testifies first to the genuine popularity of the images, for them to have penetrated into the bourgeois tableware market. But more than that it testifies to a genuinely widespread forming of European consciousness within domestic popular culture. What sort of person would want a series of plates like this? What sort of conversations, stories, exchanges, ideas, dreams and aspirations might have been spun around them? A significant sector in the market appears to have been engaged in a daily dreamwork of a Europe being defined and of splendid experiences in the offing. I wonder what pictures Michael Gove has on his tureens?

3 Sublime despite the Crisis

I couldn’t find anywhere else to work this in, but I on Google Earth I came across a splendidly sublime photograph of Patras and the Pantokrator taken by Vasilis Karaman. I hope he will be happy for me to share it with you here:

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