The Cult of Byron

July 12, 2016

I spied this lithograph of George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) and his mistress Marianna Segati at a general antiques fair recently.


Lord Byron and Marianna. Lithograph with original colour by hand, by an unidentified printmaker. Possibly after William Drummond (fl. 1800-1850). [London: n.d., c.1840.]

The legendary Romantic poet is interrupted by his devoted lover as he writes to fellow poet Thomas Moore from Venice around 1817.  The letterpress caption is a quote from that very same letter, as reported by Moore in his Letters and Journals of Lord Byron (London: John Murray, 1830). Segati was Byron’s first mistress in Venice, the wife of his landlord, a draper near the Piazza San Marco. He wrote to his half-sister Augusta that “we are one of the happiest—unlawful couples this side of the Alps”, but was soon to become infatuated with Margarita Cogni, the wife of a baker.

Of course, as much as his words, the iconography of Byron shaped both perceptions in his lifetime and his legacy after his premature death of fever in Missolonghi in 1824. Famous in his lifetime after the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), and increasingly notorious when the scathing satire Don Juan (1819-24) appeared, he became an instant legend when he gave his life in the cause of liberation (of Greece).

Printed images of Byron circulated widely during his lifetime, and increasingly throughout the European Continent after his death – portraits of Byron were probably more numerous in the middle of the 19th century than of any other individual, except perhaps Napoleon.

Thomas Phillips‘ two portraits were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1814 and caused a sensation. His Byron in exotic Albanian dress in 1814 was of particular appeal to popular Romantic sentiment and spawned a glut of engravings after the original passed to Byron’s daughter, Ada, in 1835.

NPG 142; George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips

Byron by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1813 [NPG 142]

My trimmed sheet credits no artist nor printmaker, and is undated. A mezzotint of c. 1840 by Georg Zobel after painter, draughtsman and lithographer William Drummond (fl. 1800-1850) depicts the same scene, with minor compositional differences and differences of detail.

I find the portrayal of the sitters in my print rather revealing, and helpful when it comes to putting a date on it.  Not intended for fine art lovers, this is barely a portrait at all, in the truest sense of the word. The black hair, curly and slightly wild, the big collar, are really mere signifiers: these were the characteristics the contemporary viewer expected to see in a Romantic poet, especially in Byron. Segati is allowed almost zero personality. The full, round faces are imbued with an early expression of the sentimentality that would come to characterize much Victorian popular art. Both protagonists are almost infantilized. Tenderness and affection are emphasized, and any hint of sexual desire relegated. This is a watered-down, family-friendly Byron.

This lithograph, published I would guess in the first few years of Victoria’s reign, seems to me to reflect the ambivalence towards the legacy of this reckless libertine in the face of a new morality.  Heroes of the Victorian age were Christian and of upright character, and ultimately they were team players.  For many years Byron’s individuality and uncompromising commitment to personal liberty sat rather uncomfortably with the official culture. That in part explains why it took until 1969 for the Byron memorial to be dedicated in Westminster Abbey.

My print is for sale as part of my Stock Showcase here:  Byron and Marianna

The Spirited Mr Rowlandson

November 20, 2015

A bloggers’ preview last week of not one but two new exhibitions at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.  A bijou selection of high-quality genre paintings from the Golden Age of Dutch art more than competed for attention with one of the most brilliant draughtsmen and printmakers England has ever produced: Thomas Rowlandson (1757 – 1827).

The display of around 100 prints and drawings explores the life and art of one of this country’s most popular caricaturists. Social satires were his staple, but often the political intrigues of Parliament and the Court attracted the scrutiny of his quick-fire wit and flashing, free-spirited pen.

Rowlandson was a roving gun for hire, happy to direct his ridicule in whatever direction his patron or publisher of the time required – always with that arresting combination of invention and artistic flair. The exhibition includes satires against William Pitt and the Tories as well as against Pitt’s great rival Charles James Fox and his Whig acolytes.

It is perhaps surprising thIMG_2064at Rowlandson’s output was so popular with both George III and George IV, father and particularly son so often the butt of the joke. Queen Victoria apparently acquired more of his prints than either of her Hanoverian predecessors.

And pictorial satires of the Georgian and Victorian periods remain highly collectable to this day.  The market has been rejuvenated by a recent upsurge in scholarly research into this intriguingly fluid, hybrid medium that seems to straddle simultaneously the worlds of art, journalism, literature and politics.

Commanding the centre of the largest gallery is this c. 1806 four leaf screen (left), pasted with carefully arranged figures and scenes cut from satirical prints (the work of various artists, French and British).

This is a rare survival, the sort of thing I would love on my stand at a fair – think of the visitors it would attract.  These screens were popular adornments to the fashionable parlours of the Georgian and Regency periods, the ultimate statement of a trend for pasting prints onto everything from tea caddies to tables to the walls of billiard rooms (see my earlier post on this theme: Furniture Prints).

Printsellers’ catalogues and trade cards of the time offered selections of their wares intended for this very purpose.  Publishers too got in on the act – Isaac Cruikshank’s set of ‘Caricature Ornaments for screens’ was advertised in 1800.
Such screens could also be purchased ready-made.
Either way, they make for wonderful after-dinner conversation.

High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson showing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace with Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer13th November 2015 – 14th February 2016.

Brunel's Old Passenger Shed at Temple Meads Station

Brunel’s Old Passenger Shed at Temple Meads Station

I will be exhibiting at the South of England’s largest second-hand and antiquarian Book Fair outside London, in Bristol July 10th & 11th.

BristolBFTwo of the biggest bookselling associations in the country, The Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association ( PBFA) and The Antiquarian Booksellers Association (ABA), will be united under one roof.  150 exhibitors from all over the UK will be converging at the Old Passenger Shed at Temple Meads Station, with antiquarian and second hand books spanning all subjects and price ranges – from finely bound volumes to children’s books.

There will be prints too, of course.

Preview some of the NEW stock I will be taking to Bristol here:

The Bristol Premier Book Fair will be held on Friday 10th July from 2.00pm – 8.00pm and on Saturday 11th July from 10.00am – 6.00pm.  Tickets cost £2 and can be bought on the door.

For further information, please call Matthew Butler on 01454218036 or 07771 833188 or Hannah Aspinall at George Bayntun on 01225 466000

Fair website:

Painting Paradise

March 24, 2015

Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden explores the many ways in which the garden has been celebrated in art through over 150 paintings, drawings, books, manuscripts and decorative arts from the Royal Collection.

The exhibition runs from 20th March to 11th October at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, 1615

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, 1615

The display is arranged chronologically – cleverly incorporating garden-feature props – and explores what gardens have meant to people over the centuries.

Biblical notions have permeated garden design from the outset – the word ‘paradise’ derives from the ancient Persian for an enclosed, protected space and through the book of Genesis has become intertwined with visions of the Garden of Eden.

The precedents of classical antiquity were, as one would expect, prominent in the minds of the Renaissance gardeners. A small c.1550 pen and ink and chalk drawing by an unidentified draughtsman (once attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci) is one of the first attempts in Italian Renaissance art to depict a garden accurately.  It probably shows part of a villa garden used for cultivating medicinal herbs, with regular rectangular beds.

That's me on the left!

That’s me on the left!

By way of total contrast, I particularly enjoyed the magnificently large and sweeping vista of Hampton Court rendered in oil by Leonard Knyff (1650 – 1722). The bird’s-eye prospect of the Palace perfectly exemplifies the Anglo-Dutch formality of patterned parterres and avenues fashionable at the time.

Leonard Knyff, A View of Hampton Court, c.1702-14

Leonard Knyff, A View of Hampton Court, c.1702-14

Knyff’s drawings were turned into etchings by Jan Kip, a fellow Dutchman born in Amsterdam. Kip’s series of plates known as ‘Britannia Illustrata’ were first issued in 1707 in a single volume of eighty. The distinctive views of country seats, instantly recognisable by their aerial perspective, are as much concerned with the formal landscape gardens as with the houses themselves. I myself have recently acquired the plate of Doddington Hall in Lincolnshire.

The freer style of landscaping that emerged in the 18th century, by such luminaries as William Kent and Lancelot “Capability” Brown, is well represented. This incorporated formal structures and wilderness elements. The exhibition ends with some contemporary interpretations, via the age of Victoria, the first monarch to hold garden parties at Buckingham Palace.

Well worth a visit.

Printed on the Ice

February 6, 2014

In the days before photo-journalism, the prints I encounter often served as a visual report of an event – and now of course serve as valuable records for the modern historian.

But what people like me really love is handling prints with a direct and (literally) tangible connection to a particular occasion, or historical personality.

And personally, I would love to uncover a souvenir of one of the Thames ‘Frost Fairs’. They are such an evocative echo of a lost London.


The dear old River Thames froze over 16 times between 1683 and 1814. The spontaneous community celebrations held on the ice when temperatures plummeted provided a great escape from the drudgery of London’s coldest winters.

Many fair-goers bought souvenirs from printers who temporarily set up presses in tents on the ice to commemorate the occasion. These often consisted of fairly crude woodcuts or engraved designs personalised with the customer’s letterpress name (and sometimes age); crucially for historians they were usually dated.

Those few that survive, with their charmingly naïve, folk-arty depictions of crowds, booths and games – often featuring a famous London landmark – deserve to be more widely appreciated.

So I am pleased to note there is a Frost Fair exhibition at the Museum in Docklands running until 30th March. A good introduction to the subject is provided by the British Library’s Untold lives blog.

As you can imagine, Frost Fair souvenirs are highly collectable – those four little words ‘Printed on the Ice’ command a hefty premium. Financial considerations aside, I am transported instantly to the crisp, chill air and smell of hot spiced gingerbread.

Propaganda in Print

October 21, 2013

Last week I popped along to Room 16 of the National Portrait Gallery to take a look at the ‘Treason, Plots and Murder‘ display of 17th century British political prints. The contemporary engraving of the shifty-looking Gunpowder Plot conspirators (below) in earnest conversation by Crispijn de Passe is an arresting image, familiar from my school history textbooks.

But my eye was instantly drawn to the adjacent wall and a complete set of pictorial playing cards depicting the Popish Plot of 1678. They were designed by Francis Barlow, who apart from high quality book illustrations and sets of prints of birds and animals which were etched by Wenceslaus Hollar, Richard Gaywood and others, produced propaganda prints on behalf of the Whig faction during this turbulent period of our nation’s history.


In fact the Popish Plot was not in reality a ‘plot’ at all but a total fabrication by the notorious perjurer Titus Oates, with the consequence that dozens of innocent people were brutally executed. The episode was perhaps the ultimate manifestation of the febrile atmosphere surrounding religious politics in 17th century England.

Each chronologically-sequential image, with its caption beneath, narrates a highly biased interpretation of the inglorious affair for the amusement and ‘education’ of the card player, almost in the style of a strip cartoon. What more effective, flexible or popular medium than the playing card – perhaps the equivalent of today’s TV (or internet) advertising – to promote a version of events that were the talk of every tavern and parlour in the land?

The exhibition is a potent reminder that power, print and propaganda have been irrevocably linked since the first presses went into production.
It runs until February 16th 2014.