Going on a Summer Holiday? 10: long distance shopping

This series is now one of the longest serving on our blog; I wrote several posts ago that I hoped it would not take as long to reveal as the journey which William Harris undertook around Europe between 1821-1823. Well, I have a feeling that I may have already broken that record, but at least it’s given us all a sense of the length of time which this journey from Dover, through France to Italy and then to Sicily actually took!

William continued to number his letters for his father.

William continued to number his letters for his father.

In the last post, William had just scaled Mount Etna with his band of architect friends, and found the undertaking rather easier than he had expected. By August 1822, however, William was lodging in the Franciscan convent of S. Vito, near ‘Grigenti’, alone. From my initial reading of this letter, I got the impression that William had been ill, but a second look shows little evidence of this. The group had intended to stay at a monastery before, at Taormina, but their plans were foiled when they discovered it to be full of priests awaiting the election of the new superior. So the fact that he was alone at a convent could simply be that it was a suitable location for his exploration of the ‘pure’ architectural remains of Sicily. In any case, perhaps he would not like to tell his father, so far away, that he was ill. After all, William Harris Snr., back in Norton Street, London, would wait months to receive the letter and then be unable to do much to help his son.

Of the remaining members of William Junr.’s group (two had left before the ascent of Etna), one certainly was ill: Brooks (who I described in an earlier post as the comedy partner) seems to have had bad sea sickness after the crossing from Catania. Thomas Angell and Mr. Atkinson were, however, made of sterner stuff, and had set out to explore Malta. William’s delight in the architectural remains in Sicily had been his reason, he told his father, for remaining alone. In any case, the friends were expecting to reunite, William thought, around the 21 August.

I suppose one of the other reasons why I suspect that all may not have been well with William is the brevity and directness of this letter. In the past, he had written very eloquent descriptions of places he and his friends had visited, and offered opinions on local habits. This letter, however, offers no description of his surroundings, nor of any of the ‘architectural’ (probably archaeological) sites which he visited.

William sent his letters home via his friend Mr Hunter, who lived in Paris.

William sent his letters home via his friend Mr Hunter, who lived in Paris.

Instead, the letter focuses on news from home, in London, which he had left more than a year earlier. We have already established that William’s mother did not enjoy the best of health; William considered that his parents’ removal to Peckham (at this time outside of London) would offer ‘cheerful society and a change of air’ which he was sure would be ‘very beneficial’. As well as his parents, William had a sister, Margaret, married to another architect, Thomas. In an earlier missive, he had learned that, for reasons of economy, they were removing from their home in order to let it. Because of this, he opens his letter having enclosed a letter for them, too, since he did not know where they could be reached. Again, the realities of the distance between William and his family, in terms of both time and miles, must have been playing on his mind. It had been 16 weeks prior to his sister’s letter since he had heard any news from ‘Old England’, having had no reply from his previous letter (no. 8, from Rome). Of course, he writes, his father may have replied to Naples, expecting William to be there, but the change in his plans meant at least a two month stay at Gingenti, rather than returning straight to Italy.

In spite of his desire to hear from home, time was obviously pressing: “As post time draws nigh I will now proceed to business and fill up the leisure if any remains afterwards”. This business consisted of a shopping list of materials and supplies, which William asked to be sent out to Sicily. Including pencils (from Brockman and Langdon’s, Bloomsbury), paper and watercolours, William explained that such drawing materials were ‘not to be obtained of even tolerable quality on the Continent’. Aside from these artists’ supplies for his sketching of classical ruins, William also requested that his father send out ‘a 2 feet parallel rule’, recalling that he had left it ‘either in my library table…or in the lower closet of the study’, paper ‘for memorandas’ and, from his brother-in-law Thomas, ‘tracings of the Temple of Theseus at Athens’. Finally, he asked for ‘4 day shirts…as those I have with me are nearly worn out.’ Unlike his friend Brooks, who had insisted on trunks of the latest fashions being sent out to Rome, William seems to largely have made do with that he had taken with him. Architecture and adventure seem to have been a much higher priority, for him, than clothes and supplies!

William's shopping list.

William’s shopping list.

This is the first instance of William requesting a significant amount of material from home, although he had previously mentioned in passing the cost of his travels, particularly his own frugality when living off his father’s allowance. Evidently, William had been able to spend some free time looking at his father’s responses, as he adds:

I now subjoin a list of the bills I have drawn on different bankers as they do not appear to agree with the memoranda you forwarded me

Lady Elizabeth Foster (1787)

Lady Elizabeth Foster (1787), Duchess of Devonshire 1809-1824

Although far from home, William clearly moved in circles of society which spanned the whole of Europe. Having previously visited contacts professional and personal, he asks for a letter of introduction from a mutual friend for the Duchess of Devonshire who was to stay in Rome over the winter. This was Elizabeth Christina Cavendish, who had married the fifth Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, in 1809 and retained the title of Duchess after the succession of his son to the title in 1811. The fifth Duke had been married to the celebrated Georgiana, but Elizabeth had lived with them since 1782, having separated from her husband Lord Foster, mystifying polite society. Elizabeth certainly had two children by the Duke prior to their marriage, and some whispered that she was lover to both the Duke and Duchess. In any case, she developed a love for the continent, even accompanying Georgiana during her exile designed to hide her illegitimate pregnancy from polite society. Following the death of the Duke, Elizabeth moved to Italy and developed an interest in antiquities, even financing the excavation of the Forum for eleven years. It is likely that this interest in classical architecture, and the circles in which she moved, were the main draw for William’s hopes of an introduction, but there must still have been a touch of scandal around this 65-year old widow as well.

The tone of this letter seems, to me, to be one of stocking up, preparing to start work again after a period of inactivity. Rather than tell his father about his exploits, as in previous letters, William is anxious to make sure he has the necessary materials to continue his adventure, but is also eager to hear more from home. He mentions ‘Jane’ once more, whom his father had removed from his house in the previous autumn, noting that he had given her the key to the drawer in which his shirts were kept. Perhaps the answer to this mystery is than Jane was a servant, presumably a long term and respected servant, since William had been sorry to hear of her departure. Thinking of home also led William to think of the horses: a favoured mount, Dick, had undergone an operation in the summer of 1821. ‘Pray let me know if Dick has recovered his lameness’, William writes in his closing paragraph.

William had plenty of recourse to bankers during his trip - including to collect his post!

William had plenty of recourse to bankers during his trip – including to collect his post!

In spite of the time it took to journey around Europe in the early 19th century, it was evidently not an insurmountable exercise – at least not for those with the funds to support it. Postage, bankers and even letters of introduction to the seemingly web-like networks of society brought together like-minded individuals right across the Continent. But even with those modern developments, the distance from home could indeed feel great, and leave the intrepid traveller in danger of isolation. Yet William’s thirst for adventure took him still further in his discoveries – right into one of the biggest antiquarian scandals since the exploits of Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, at the beginning of the century.

A happy 2015 to you all; perhaps this year will see the closure of William Harris’ adventure!

Going on a Summer Holiday? 8: a Roman Carnival

William usually over-wrote his letters to make the most of available paper

William usually over-wrote his letters to make the most of available paper

Well here we are in what finally feels like spring. The sun is shining, for now, and while I don’t suppose that it will last a week, it’s put me in mind of holidays and exotic locations once again. Those of you who’ve been following the series of posts recounting William Harris’ journeys around Europe in 1821-23 may remember that I started this series way back last summer, with a similar ‘holiday’ theme. In reality, William’s trip wasn’t a holiday but more of an extended gap year, on which he met a number of like minded young gentlemen, most of them architects, who spent their time exploring and frequently (if a little bizarre, to my un-architectural mind) measuring the remains of classical architecture around the Mediterranean.

William’s story comes from a dozen or so letters written to his father back at home in London and recently discovered in the mysteriously named ‘Hansard Family deed box’. Unfortunately, we don’t have his father’s replies, but occasionally there are hints of the conversations which took place in the extant letters. Some of the replies evidently went astray; this is painfully clear in William’s previous letter from Rome, sent in January 1822, in which he wrote of the misery of being so far away from his loved ones. Probably in response to this, William’s father often annotated the received letters as ‘replied’ with a date, presumably to keep track of what had been sent.

William's father noted the date of his reply

William’s father noted the date of his reply

By the end of February 1822, William seems to have been in a more cheerful mood. He had received the package which he had requested from home in November, containing a watch, book and other ‘appendages’. It also seems that Rome itself was a more cheerful place to be – rather than the rain and funerals, the carnival season had come to the city.

One of the highlights of the carnival was a horse race along the Via del Corso, noted by William as ‘the Bond Street of Rome’.

“About 7 o’clock the Corso nearly half a mile in length…was filled with crowds…. A little before sunset at a signal given the course is cleared for the race. The ends of the cross streets are closed with files of soldiers and the military…dispersed throughout the whole length. Numerous spectators fill the footpaths and windows and balconies, which are also hung with tapestries or crimson silk. This is a strange scene compared with an English racecourse.”

A Thomas Rowlandson illustration showing a British racecourse c.1820

A Thomas Rowlandson illustration showing a British racecourse c.1820

William had, of course, a love of horses, witnessed in his concern about the lameness of one of the family ponies, named Dick, in earlier letters. This particular Roman race appears to have been a popular event since the fifteenth century, but it was somewhat alien to William’s cultural expectations. While debates over the humaneness of the Grand National continue, this race was a far cry from anything which William considered kind;

As the Italian race-horses always run without riders they have recourse to various means more or less cruel to urge their speed. A kind of spur is attached to their sides formed by a ball of lead stuck with spikes and fixed to the end of a short thong which beating against them goads the poor animals…. Fireworks also are sometimes fastened to them and large pieces of metal foil. Besides these instruments of torture, the horses are decked with ribbons.

Even in the nineteenth century, it’s clear that there were wide cultural differences in attitudes towards animals across Europe. Of course, goading the horses in this way could be as much danger to people as well: William reported that, ‘when led out for the race, some of them are so irritated as to require some 3 or so men to hold them…’

Without the need to impel the horses to start, the method of making them stop seemed to William still more bizarre:

A large sail cloth is hung entirely across the street – several grooms stand before it and by their shouts endeavour to check the speed of the animals.

Despite some of the animals getting outside the city walls and running for several miles before they could be stopped, in general, William considered this method of ending the race was ‘more effective than one would suppose’. The prize for the race was thirty crowns and the sail cloth.

Wm Harris Rome c2

Aside from being unnerved by Roman styles of horse racing, William evidently enjoyed the ‘confusion’ of the Carnival, which came to its end on 19 February 1822. He described streets ‘filled with pedestrians’ including ‘crowds of persons in the most grotesque masquerading dresses…huddled together in motley groups.’ ‘The coachmen’, William noted, ‘wore women’s dresses and one coach was filled with people masked as cats’.

As an educated gentleman with good connections, William was also privileged to be invited to a ‘very gay masked ball given by Torlonia’ at which the ‘rooms were brilliant and the dresses splendid’. The Torlonia family was a powerful banking family in Italy, and this particular Torlonia, probably Giovanni (1755-1829), administered the Vatican’s finances. Their wealth was evidently on display: William noted Torlonia’s ‘diamond buttons’ and that ‘the Duchess his wife was sparkling with finery’. ‘Many of the English and Italian nobility were there’, William commented airily, most of them in costume: ‘the young Torlonias danced as Peruvians in character-whimsical enough’.

Another of the honoured guests – somewhat higher up the social ladder than William himself – was ‘Prince Couburg who is to be seen everywhere.’ Evidently, the presence of Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg (1785-1851) was nothing great to be commented on in Rome at that time, but we now know him as the uncle of both the later Queen Victoria (who was only 3 and a long way from the throne at this point) and her husband, Prince Albert.

Virginius, or; the liberation of Rome advertised this exotic location to playgoers from Ulverston, 1824, advertising

Virginius, or; the liberation of Rome This exotic location was used to advertise the play at Ulverston, 1824

Perhaps William’s buoyant mood also had something to do with his plans to move on from Rome after the long winter, to head to Sicily and discover new wonders. This meant the breaking up of their little group, gathered piecemeal from Calais onwards. Mr Butts (who avoided the near run-in with bandits near Naples by staying with the mules) and Mr Montagu (who had spent the summer cruising the Mediterranean in a brig of war) were returning to England via Northern Italy. Mr. Brooks, however, intended to come back to Rome from his visit to Florence in time to set off with Thomas Angell and William for Sicily in April. Their adventures – including climbing a volcano and sparking an international furore in the archaeological world –  must wait until a later post, but I hope you still have time to hear an unusually personal note which William added to his letter the following morning.

We have surmised that Margaret, William’s sister, was married to a man named Thomas (another architect); some time between the 27 and the morning of 28 February, William received a letter from them which troubled him:

I am truly grieved to hear that circumstances have induced Thomas and my sister to think of letting their house and taking up their residence in the country

William evidently shared contemporaries' mistrust of renting property

William evidently shared contemporaries’ mistrust of renting property

These ‘circumstances’, though they were apparently not spelled out in the letter, William had surmised to be ‘health and economy united’. The drive for economy, William feared, would prove futile, owing to the dangers of unreliable tenants, the expense of moving and ‘the damage which would almost inevitably accrue to their furniture when in the hands of strangers.’ Moving from the capital might also, William feared, have a negative impact on Thomas’ career and he also considered ‘the loss my poor Mother would suffer’. In the eloquent and painstakingly polite style of the time, William asked his father, who had ‘already done much’:

would it not be a satisfaction to you to reflect you had left nothing undone…?

Assuring his father that he requested this assistance to his sister ‘solely by my own convictions’ rather than any urging on any other behalf, ‘dictated by an ardent wish for the domestic happiness of all most dear to me’, he added;

may I not hope you will consider the matter and avert so unfortunate a circumstance

I don’t know why but I find it particularly touching that even halfway round the world on the trip of a lifetime, William clearly still felt the need to intervene and help his family, with real concern for their well-being. What happened to them is still to be discovered, with William setting off for Sicily in the hopes of new adventure – but I suspect that neither he nor his family could have imagined what would happen next.

Keep up to date with William’s adventures by checking the blog and keeping an eye on our Twitter feed @UoKSpecialColls

Going on a Summer Holiday 7: Christmas in Rome

It seems like the summer was so long ago – and the discovery of William Harris’ letters from his trip around Europe. Even so, I’m still finding these letters intriguing – I hope that you are too!

By December 1821, William and his four friends – all architects – had reached Rome. Two of  them had set out from Dover in June; they had acquired new friends as they journeyed through France, to Geneva, then south through Italy before arriving in Rome for the winter. Although William and his architect friends had hoped to go on to Greece to sample architecture of the classical style, the Greek War of Independence (from the Ottoman Empire) meant that travel there was too dangerous to contemplate. Instead, William, Mr Brooks and Mr Angell had decided to remain in Rome for three months, when they would journey on to Sicily.

William's second letter to Rome

William’s second letter to Rome

While we may think that the winter can be bleak in Britain, Rome in a nineteenth-century December, according to William, was not exactly exotic. He wrote again to his father on 10 January, ‘very much disappointed in not having received a single letter from London’ since the beginning of November. Whether it was homesickness, the distance from his family or simply the discomfort of the winter, William’s tone is unusually dismal – but still full of intriguing snippets. Since we’re coming up to Christmas, I thought William’s experience of the Roman festivities might be of interest.

A tiara bearer

A papal tiara bearer, from ‘Rome’ by F. Wey, 1875

Evidently a staunch Protestant of the Church of England, William conceded that the Catholic ceremonies were ‘very splendid’. He visited the Pope’s chapel on the Quirinale Hill, where the Papal palace was used from the 16 century until around 1870. His first visit was on Christmas Eve, at a Mass which ‘was performed…with much grandeur’. On Christmas morning, William returned to the chapel for Mass, writing ‘I never witnessed a religious ceremony so nearly approaching a piece of acting as this’. Evidently he had been brought up in a rather more plain tradition.

The cardinals wore scarlet robes with white fur capes and a scarlet skull cap and were each attended by a tiara bearer in a purple robe. They rose to receive each other as they arrived and took their seats in a line with their attendant tiara-bearers on a seat below them. The Pope entered soon after, clothed in a long robe of white silk embroidered with gold, the triple crown on his head and followed by a numerous retinue of priests and the senators of Rome. He was immediately seated, the triple crown removed and a silk embroidered mitre substituted. The pontifical robes being changed he was conducted to the throne covered with white silk and gold and a canopy of crimson velvet… On the throne he received the homage of the cardinals – who approached one by one to kiss hands – and also of the senators – who wear a wig and robes something like those of our serjeants at law, excepting the colour, which is scarlet.

Engraving of a cardinal

Engraving of a cardinal, from ‘Rome’ by F. Wey, 1875

The Pope himself, Pius VII, seems to have impressed William; ‘Pius VII is a dignified old man of a very benevolent character’. Having become Pope in 1800, by 1821 Pius VII had reached the grand age of 79; it was hardly surprising that he was ‘too infirm to walk without assistance’. One of the ceremonies, William considered undignified: ‘the degrading ceremony of kissing the Pope’s toe was actually performed (at least on the shoe) by the priest who officiated at the altar.’ Other aspects of the Mass were more familiar, but still left William missing his customary style of worship;

The chaunting was most musical…but it falls far short of our cathedral service in this respect. The singing was fine enough but wanted the solemn organ to give fullness to the anthems.

The Mass was not the only unusual Christmas custom which William encountered in Rome

In the church of Ara-Coeli supposed to be built on the site of the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol – was exhibited an assemblage of wax work called here a ‘Presepio’ representing in size of life the Virgin with the infant – Joseph on his knees – the shepherds etc. etc. In the background was the manger, with real hay and above, groups of angels among the clouds.

The church appears to have been Santa Maria in Aracoeli, on the Capitoline Hill, previously a temple to Juno Moneta.

An engraving of the steps to the Ara-Coeli

The steps leading up to the Ara Coeli from ‘Rome’ by F. Wey, 1875

This ‘presepio’, as you may have guessed, is a nativity scene, apparently largely unknown, at least in this larger incarnation, to William. These displays reached their apogee in the 19 century Kingdom of Naples – just a little earlier than William’s visit. Nowadays, we are used to these scenes – Canterbury Cathedral sets up its life-size model every year – but to William, this apparently Catholic practice was shocking:

This disgraceful puppet show has remained open several days and is visited by crowds who throw money into pewter platters placed to receive it in the centre of the stage.

It’s comments like this that make you realise how much things have changed in the last 200 years – and how Victorian our Christmas celebrations are now! In 1821, these festivities seem not to have impressed our English tourist, but he still had hope:

the gayest ceremonies they say are a fortnight before Lent at the carnival and during Easter week when St Peter’s is illuminated by a single cross suspended under the dome covered with innumerable lamps.

In spite of the season, there were still a number of English people in Rome. At the Mass on Christmas Eve, William met ‘Captain Grover of Norton Street’ – a neighbour back in London, I assume – while a number of English artists mingled at trattorias where William passed his time. At the Christmas Day Mass the congregation was finer still, with Cardinal Consalvi (Gonsalvi, in William’s letter), minister of the Papal States, and the Queen of Etruria, Marie Luisa of Spain who had been overthrown by Napoleon in 1807, in attendance.

Illustration of the Roman Forum, from ‘Le antichita romane’ by Luigi Rossani, 1829

If the celebrities were shimmering, however, the weather certainly was not. Another particularly British trait which William possessed was a fascination with the weather and, while this had been fine when they arrived in Rome, by early January he complained: ‘lately there has been nothing but rain’. He went on:

The streets are…often overflowed near the banks of the Tiber and in some places almost impassable from streams of water pouring down from the roofs of the houses, each almost sufficient enough to drown the unfortunate passengers

All was not lost, however, since they still managed to ‘see a great deal and to sketch and measure a little’.

It may have been the weather, the season or his apparent isolation from his family, but in this letter, William seems to have been preoccupied with the morose. One paragraph begins ‘most of the funerals here are by torch-light’. I thought that the ostentatious fascination with death was a product of Queen Victoria’s reign, but the travellers evidently found the funeral traditions of Rome fascinating.

A very grand one [funeral] passed our lodgings the other night. There must have been a train of upwards of 300 monks and priests who chaunted as they moved along in their slow procession. In the centre was the bier gorgeously adorned, carried on the shoulders of penitents who wear long white dresses and a mask to conceal their countenances. On it lay the body of an Italian Marquis – not in a coffin but wrapped in funeral robes, the face, hands and feet uncovered while the crowd of torches shed a pale yet brilliant light on the ghastly scene.

In spite of his morose moments, William was entranced with the city of Rome. He had been told that that disappointment was the most common feeling on the part of tourists on seeing the city and was ‘agreeably surprised at finding much more scope for admiration’. Even without historical interest, William considered the city superior, designed on its seven hills to improve the aesthetic impact on the viewer. Even its outskirts were ‘graced with magnificent villas and the horizon bounded with fine chains of mountains the most lofty summits capped with snow during winter’. The only problem with the city, he wrote without premonition was ‘that dreadful scourge malaria. Thousands are said to have been laid up during the heats of summer in the last season.’

Urging his father to write soon, William signed off with love to his mother, sister and brother in law – and a request to send a watch and two books to Rome, in a packing case of fashionable clothes which Mr Brooks was having delivered from England. After all, a nineteenth century gentleman could not be seen measuring ancient monuments in last season’s coat.

I hope you’ve enjoyed following the blog and all of our activities this year. It seems like just a few weeks since the first post of the year, when I wrote about the broadcasting of Restoration Man. Our year of Dickens has been eventful, productive and exciting. We look forward to welcoming you to the site, the collections and our events of 2013 – and also following William’s journey to its end, taking in Roman horse racing, Sicilian adventures, Mount Etna and an international scandal.

All the best wishes for the festive season!