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!


Going on a summer holiday 6: All roads lead to…

Exactly 191 years ago, William Harris, a young architect travelling around Europe, reached the city of Rome. Having explored ancient and more modern sites as he travelled from Dover to France, through Geneva and then Northern Italy, William waxed lyrical about the sites he’d seen, but none seem to have compared to his expectations of Rome.

Of course, the journey from Florence southwards was not without its share of excitement – the group of architects were eager to explore all that the country had to offer, from villas to volcanoes. The men employed a mule cart to transport their baggage and moved at a slow pace, allowing the men ‘plenty of excercise’; William added, ‘I think we must have walked a third of the way’. Having been warned about the poor quality of inns along the route, the friends were prepared for the worst, including a complete lack of tea. However, the warnings turned out to be ‘very much exaggerated’, although at one place they took a room ‘without any glass’ in its windows, in December. Being hardy souls, the men braved it: these hardships were of little consequence, William explained, since ‘we only slept there’.

Although there was indeed no tea to be found on the road, the architects discovered some ‘curious’ methods of making tea en route: ‘water boiled in a stewpan taken out with a soup ladle…tea made in a basin and drunk out of glasses without milk’. Travel, as the saying suggests, really does seem to have broadened these young architects’ minds.

The four architects also went to Siena, still scarred from an earthquake 31 years earlier. William noted ‘the ground is so irregular that the Baptistry is actually below the pavement of the chancel…and is approached from a different street’. Of the cathedral, however, William thought its ‘ornament is carried to excess but applied without taste’ – evidently not the clean, simple lines of perfection which the architect admired in classical buildings. The ornamented pavement, ‘in grey and white marble admirably contrasted’, depicting ‘scriptoral subjects’, impressed him. Still, with an abundance of common sense, he complained that although expending so much effort on the decoration of pavements was impressive, he pointed out that ‘it is impossible they can be seen to advantage.’

During his stay in Sienna, William also visited ‘the ‘Baths’ of St Phillippo formerly known to the Romans’. He wrote:

They are picturesquely situated among mountains and the water gushes from the natural soil with so great a heat that the hand cannot be borne in it more than half a minute – the steam rises from it as dense as boiling water strongly impregnated with sulphur and the surface all round is covered with thick calcareous deposate

Having read through several of these letters, I suspect that William discovered the heat of the water by sticking his hand in it. Architects in the nineteenth century were evidently thrill seakers; on hearing about a ‘cave of sulphur’, William decided to go and test its conditions for himself. He described;

a cleft…apparently immense in depth whence issues a strong sulphurous vapour and the heat is so great a few feet from the surface that in the space of one minute a pair of thick boots were insufficient to enable me to remain there.

Forty years after William’s travels, the British public were still fascinated by Italian volcanoes, as this playbill shows

William went on: ‘a continued murmuring noise – no doubt proceeding from subterranean fires – was distinctly heard in this gloomy chasm’. I am beginning to wonder whether sending a lot of architects off to the continent served as a kind of natural selection – to ensure that the market back in ‘Old England’ didn’t get flooded with young professionals!

At Cassia, near Bolsena, the travellers visited a volcanic outcrop of rock similar to the Giant’s Causeway ‘and the cave of the Island of Staffa’. The only difference was that the Italian ‘curiosities…incline in various directions’, rather than being perpendicular: probably, William wrote ‘the result of some convulsion of nature’.

An illustration of the Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola

Of course, the dangers of nature were not the only perils which travellers faced in the nineteenth century. After leaving Bolsena, four of the group – William, Mr Brooks, Mr Angell and Mr Montague – left Mr Butts with the mules and the baggage to branch off and visit the villa of the King Naples. This pentagonal villa at Caprarola is known as the Palazzo Farnese and is less a villa than a small palace. William was, in general, impressed with the building and although ‘the gardens are deserted and neglected’, he noted to his father that they ‘have been laid out in the first style of Italian magnificence’. He also commented on a ‘curious style of decoration’ in some of the palazzo’s apartments: ‘huge maps are painted on them, covering the whole surface of the wall’.

Tired by their exploration of the lavish villa, William and his friends walked down to the village below and sought refreshment in ‘a little osteria’. There, they found themselves ‘in  company with the most ill looking fellows I ever saw.’ He went on:

Some were enwrapped in the large Italian cloak and wore the high pointed Calabrian hat with a feather stuck in the band

Rather alarmed, the tourists discovered that there were bands of robbers operating in the area and, William recalled, ‘we had unthinkingly left our pistols in the carriage’. He worried that they ‘should have joined Mr Butts without our purses’, but these unsavoury men turned out to be two soldiers sent to safeguard travellers along the road. As luck would have it, William and his friends gained an escort back to their baggage: if they had been alone and met robbers, he joked to his father, ‘it would have been only ask and have’.

Without any further mishap, the architects caught their first glimpse of Rome at dawn on 10 December. William was evidently captivated:

From the heights…the distant farms of the city were seen illumed by the orb of day emerging from a fine chain of Appenines the loftiest of which were covered with snow. At every little eminence on the road the city gradually developed itself and the swelling dome of St Peter’s appeared in all its majesty.

Restraining himself from further description of the city so early in his acquaintance with it, William simply told his father ‘I am astounded and delighted with the magnificence of ancient and modern Rome.’ William’s ‘modern’ Rome is, of course, around 200 years earlier than what we would today consider the modern city.

A view of the modern city of Rome

The men quickly settled into the city, Angell, Brooks and William sharing apartments on the Via del Tritone, while Montague and Butts remained at the Hotel d’Allemagne, since they intended to set off for Naples earlier than their friends.William related his concerns about this travel to his father, explaining that:

‘a day or two since…the courier from Rome to Naples had been stopped and two persons carried up into the mountains – a ransom being demanded for their liberation. How long will these wretches be suffered to carry on such horrid practices!’

William’s stay in Rome was intended to last for around 3 months: his intention was to be moving on in the spring ‘probably to Sicily – fearing there is but little hope of getting to Greece just at present’ due to wars in the area. Even so, the architects had prepared well and were not ready to give up on the hope of seeing Greece altogether: in Florence, they had ‘obtained some written directions and prescriptions from Dr. Down…good medical assistance is not easily obtained’. Remarkably, all of William’s party appear to have stayed in good health throughout their journey so far.

Closing his letter with ‘kindest love’ to all, William wrote that he hoped ‘to hear frequently from Old England during my residence’ in Rome. With the year coming to a close and planning to remain in Rome for several months, William was ready to spend Christmas in the city and looked forward to discovering all kinds of the weird and wonderful Italian customs before setting off for Sicily.

With a slight spoiler: William’s next letter is timely, describing Christmas in nineteenth century Rome…keep checking the blog for updates!


Going on a Summer Holiday? 5: Mosquitos and marble

It may no longer be summer (in fact, if anyone can remember a summer this year, I’ll be impressed), but that doesn’t have to stop us thinking about exotic locations and long, sunny holidays. Having said that, the latest stage of William Harris’ journey saw him reach Florence in November 1821 – where the temperatures were far from the heights he had enjoyed travelling across France since July.

Sketch of a felucca by J. W. M. Turner (1828) (original held by the Tate)

In William’s previous letters to his father, he wrote about Dover, Calais, Paris and Mont Blanc. Having passed through Chamonix, climbed Mont Blanc and visited Geneva and Milan he then set sail on 25 October from Genoa. William and his friends sailed in a ‘felucca’, a traditional Mediterranean boat which could usually take around 10 passengers. On board, William and his three friends (Messrs. Brooks, Angell and Butts) met a Mr Edward Montagu, who was apparently educated at Cambridge and had spent the previous 8 months ‘cruising about the Mediterranean in a brig of war for his amusement’ – perhaps the nineteenth century gentleman’s equivalent of a late gap year.

As you may remember, William enjoyed his journey across the English Channel, although several other passengers were violently ill. His cruise from Genoa proved to be ‘a very pleasant little voyage’, despite the lack of comfort on the boat and some delays on the way. In the gulf of Spezia, the wind had been high and the sailors had taken on ballast – but by noon the sea was calm; the felucca ‘lay as a log on the surface of the ocean in sight of the celebrated marble quarries of Carrara’. ‘The sea agrees with me very well’, William wrote cheerfully.

The architects entered entered the port of Leghorn at 9 in the evening, where, since the Health Office was closed, the group had to sleep a second night on the deck of the small boat. William explained,

“…no vessels are permitted to land their passengers until the bill of health has been examined and the officer has been on board”

Health Office quoteThe spread of diseases such as plague and yellow fever led to increasingly strict regulation by the British government during the eighteenth century; in 1752 the Levantine trade regulation act introduced a severe quarentine clause to traders in the area. These regulations became firmer in the ensuing decades, with a new act in 1805 and an enquiry in 1823-1824. Perhaps the all of these acts and regulations gave men like William, who was ‘compelled to pass a second night upon deck’, the feeling that the law makers were imposing unneccesary bars on their travel and trade. After the influx of cholera to Britain was not prevented by quarentine in the early nineteenth century, the practice largely disappeared from the British Isles.

Once he was able to enter the port, William found that he like Livorno, in the main. He approved of the “fine square and streets paved with longe [sic] flag stones laid diagonally and roughly tooled to prevent horses from slipping” and the considerable trade carried out in the town – “upward of 50 sail of British merchantmen were there”. The architects also discovered an English cemetery in the town, which William praised as being the neatest he had ever seen, apart from Pere-la-Chaise in Paris. “Tis planted with cypress trees casting a mournful shade,” he wrote poetically, adding that “many of the alabaster vases and chimney ornaments so numerous in London” were made in Leghorn.

The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker

‘The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker’ was Smollett’s last novel.

The production of these ornaments was not the town’s final claim to fame for these travellers: in the English cemetery, they found a tomb to the memory of Tobias Smollett who had died in Leghorn in 1771 after retiring to Italy from his native Scotland. Smollett was a popular writer in the eighteenth century, who later alledgedly influenced Charles Dickens. The fact that William noted the tomb, along with his references in other letters to Byron and The Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne show that, like many other well educated gentleman of the day, he had studied British literature.

From Livorno, William and his friends then journeyed on to Pisa, where he was enraptured by the ‘Gotico-Tedesco’ (German Gothic) style of its architecture. He also noted

the most singular feature…is the celebrated leaning tower which actually overhands its foundation upwards of 13 feet and is almsot 180 high

Postcard showing 12th century doors to Pisa Cathedral (PC396)

In fact, the architects enjoyed Pisa so much that they prolonged their stay, ‘sketching and taking dimensions’. I hadn’t been aware of it before, but apparently nineteenth century architects spent a lot of time measuring things – from the number of young architects there appear to have been around the Mediterranean at William’s time, I think it’s impressive they all had the space to carry out their own measuring! There was, however, and important reason for Williams journey: improving his acuaintance with works of art.

After 6 days in Pisa, the group went on to Florence, arriving on 6 November. After Pisa’s hot sun, it was hard to adapt to the ‘very sharp’ wind and the frosty mornings. The onset of cold weather did, however, put an end to the annoyance of mosquitos, which William describes as ‘a very small kind of gnat’. The fact that he needed to describe the insects to his father suggests that they weren’t very prevelant in England – at least not in the fashionable part of London. Of course, we now know that mosquitos carry strains of malaria, which jeapordised the lives of many travellers…. But more on that later.

At the time when William and his friends were travelling, the modern nation of Italy didn’t exist. Instead, they travelled through various kingdoms on their way to Florence. In the terriroy of Lucca, William described

“Huge quantities of Indian corn are grown…may of the cottages were covered with large yellow ears suspended against the fronts to be dried by the sun”

Crossing the seperate territories involved passing numerous customs houses but to pass these swiftly, William advised, “the word ‘Inglese’ is really sufficient”. I doubt that such a self assured border crossing would be so easy now!

Unfortunately, not everything has such an easy journey. As he travelled, William sent home the address of his bank at the next intended stop for any letters. At Florence, William blamed ‘the stupid banker’ for forwarding on a letter to his next intended stop, in Rome. The abashed banker ‘promise[d] to write immediately and rectify the mistake’. After William’s apparently straightforward experience of travel, and the talk of sending parcels and books across Europe, in an age before motorisation, it seems impressive that things didn’t go astray more often!

In Florence, William and his friends settled “at a ‘pension’ or boarding house at the Piazza Santa Maria Novella”, assuring his father that it only cost 45 shillings per head per week.

We sat down 13 [to the pension’s dinner tables] yesterday but that did not take away my appetite.

With all of the measuring he had still to do, it was probably a good thing that William was in such resolutely good health.

He closed his letter with an enquiry after Dick, the horse, and a summary of his expenditure to convince his father ‘not [to] imagine my dispursements have been more heavy than they actually are’. Concluding with ‘congratulations to the young married couple’ – another mystery to be solved – William set off to enjoy his weeks in Florence.

There, we leave him for the rest of November, until the small group of architects travelled south to spend the festive season in Rome, and discover all of the strange traditions which the ancient city could provide.

Going on a summer holiday? 4: an Omnipotent Creator

When we last heard from William, he was in Paris, sampling the delights of the city and commenting on some of the most important episodes of the early nineteenth century. By the time he wrote to his father again, it was October, and he and his three friends had enjoyed ‘a most interesting journey’ through Switzerland. In spite of the excitement, William had been glad to receive a letter from his father, and ‘a double one from Thomas and my sister’. Detective work so far suggests that William’s sister, Margaret, was married to Thomas, both of whom are mentioned in every letter. William was relieved to be assured ‘of the welfare of my dear friends’, explaining:

“The farther we are removed from those who have a right to our affections, the more importance do we attach to every fresh arrival of intelligence from them.”

Of course, William’s journey was going to take him much further from his family than Switzerland.

Vallies of SwitzerlandThe landscape and the climate of the Switzerland, William explained, were largely the same as in England and ‘some of the cattle are as fine as our own’. After France, with its ‘endless straight roads’, the architectural eye found the ‘serpentine lines and hedges’ far more pleasing. William had little to say about Switzerland and his time spent in Geneva, only adding that there were delicious wild cranberries growing in the hedges on the road between Geneva and Sallanches. The journey from Geneva to the eventual arrival in Milan, however, offered plenty for William to write home about.

Mont Blanc “As we approached Sallènche [Sallanches], the scenery gradually became mountainous and within half an hour of that place an object of the most sublime description burst on our more astonished senses – Mont Blanc! the highest mountain in Europe! Its summits clad with eternal snows, soaring far above the very clouds, illumined by the last golden rays of the setting sun. Imagination can hardly conceive anything to surpass it.”

Awed by the sight, William told his father:

In the contemplation of such a glorious scene as this, the mighty hand of an Omnipotent Creator is most evident to the most superficial and carries with it that feeling of dependence and submission to his will which it is impossible not to acknowledge.

This is not to say that William necessarily held views of religion which would seem antiquated and credulous to some today; long before the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 there had been debate about the literal truth of the Bible and many discoveries which had led to new explorations of Christianity. Later on in this letter, William described the glacier of Bossons, which falls towards the ‘beautiful valley’ of Chamonix (‘Chamouny’ in William’s letters):

The glacier of Bassons

The glacier of Bossons

an enormous mass of frozen ice and snow descending from Mont Blanc into the verdant valley below. The novel effect it has to an eye unaccustomed to such sights is wonderful. The glaring purity of the ice, split into immense pyramids of very acute form, contrasted with a grove of dark mountain pine in the background while cultivation and verdure almost dispute its footing altogether appear more like enchantment than reality.

For all of his talk of enchantment and of an Omnipotent Creator, William then described the formation of the glacier like a nineteenth-century scientist:

“The glaciers are the remains of ancient avalanches, or masses of snow which roll down from the summits of the mountains when it has accumulated in heaps too large to remain there. This mostly happens in winter and spring and ‘tis said they fall with a noise loud as thunder. During the heats of summer they are constantly melting…. They have also a progressive or sliding motion into the valley imperceptible indeed, but it has been proved by experiment to be not less than 4 or 5 inches a day and this motion is the cause of the clefts and pyramids formed in the glacier….. Glaciers sometimes decrease in bulk and so seem to retreat in a very hot season as is the case with this of which I am now speaking and it has left a sad desolate site covered with large stones and pebbles without one single blade of grass to distract from the hideous picture. After a severe winter, acres of cultivation have been lost by their incontrolable [sic] advance.”

The glacier of Bassons

The glacier of Bossons

William’s romantic edge as a writer returns when he adds that:

‘The shadows on the pyramids or rather spires of ice produced by the melting snow are of the finest cerulean blue.’

I think that William’s commentary on the awe inspiring Mont Blanc landscape illustrates the psyche of the early nineteenth century gentleman: a Christian, a thinker and a scientist, all rolled into one.

Watery clouds sailing amongst the mountains

Watery clouds sailing amongst the mountains

Not everything about the mountain trek was picturesque, however; the lower hills were ‘partially concealed by the watery clouds sailing amongst them – the foreboders of the stormy day which followed’. Leaving Sallanches in the morning in ‘a strange 4 wheeled carriage for 3 persons called a ‘char-a-banc’ resembling the body of a garden chaise placed sideways’, William and his friends were annoyed to find that it rained ‘without interruption with great violence’ until 5 o’clock. The three in the carriage were spattered with mud and the fourth, riding a mule (they took it in turns), probably fared little better. There was little to be seen ‘through the pelting rain’ but what they could make out was ‘of a grand and wild character’. Never mind spending 3 hours crossing the channel; this stage of the journey sounds the most unnerving so far:

“Sometimes the road which was extremely rugged ran close to the edge of a steep precipice – in another part the rocks were several hundred feet above us. We saw several immense stones lying scattered about, hurled by the all prevailing hand of time from the cragged mountains. Several small torrents intercepted the route – full of pebbles as long as paving stones…”

‘So you can imagine’, he wrote drily, ‘we had a pretty rough jaunt of it.’

However, it sounds as if all four – William, Mr Brooks, Mr Angell and Mr Butts arrived safely at Chamonix, where they stayed (perhaps predictably) at the London Hotel, with views of Mont Blanc, the glacier of Bassons and the Mer de Glace from their windows. It’s starting to make me jealous of their holiday!


The modern valley of Chamonix

The four evidently made a trip to the ‘Jardin’ of Mont Blanc, part of the mountain walk which rises above the Mer de Glace, since William told his father that he was attempting to describe it in a letter to his sister. In his brief paragraph apparently responding to his father’s news in a previous letter, William makes an interesting reference to ‘Jane’, who he had sent his love to, along with his mother and sister, in all of his earlier letters.


“I am sorry to hear that Jane is no longer an inmate of your house but hope the change will be more agreeable to all parties.”

Who was Jane? It’s a mystery to me, at the moment, but I hope to do some more investigation and find out soon!

This letter also gives us the address of Mr Thomas Angell’s father, at 8 Church Row, Islington. William asked his father to write to Thomas’ father whenever William sent news, and that Thomas would ask his father to do the same. This small band of young architects were evidently becoming fast friends.

So having written from Milan, in an unusually clear letter (with only one layer of writing, though it’s all crammed in), William wished his father the best and signed off for a trip around Italy. More on that next time…

William’s fourth letter will be on display in the Templeman Library foyer for a limited period, along with some of the scientific and theological literature of his day.

PS. If you’re wondering about the horse, William was ‘very glad to hear [a] good account of poor Dick.’

Going on a summer holiday? 3: Turbulent times

This summer, we’re following young architect William Harris’ trip around Europe, which began in 1821. He left Dover in the company of two friends and travelled to Calais, where he witnessed the celebrations for Corpus Christi. From there, he and Mr Brooks took a leisurely route to Paris. Although William arrived in the city early in July, he only had time to send a quick note to his father to assure him that they were well. We catch up with him on 23 July, when he’d found time in his busy schedule to write a longer letter home.

After the note he sent home on 2 July, William Harris began to feel ‘no little anxiety’ that he had not heard from his father for a full 15 days, nor from his sister for 14 days. The long awaited missive arrived on 15 July, delayed, apparently, by his father’s equally busy schedule! ‘Really, my dear Father, you must endeavour to spare time to let me hear from you a little more frequently’ William admonished, eager to hear ‘any news from Old England’. Sadly, we don’t have any of William Harris Senr.’s replies to his son in the deed box, but this letter is only the third of twelve, so there’s still a long way for William (and for us) to go!

Once he had settled into his lodgings in Paris, William began his errands in the city which, he said, possessed ‘so many points of attraction’. One interesting ‘commission’ he was sent with was to locate a mysterious ‘Madame Crowe’ on behalf of one Mr Jackson. The information relating to this woman in the letter is sparse, except that she was a married woman and probably ‘not residing in furnished lodgings’. In any case, William reported with some disappointment that he had been unable to locate her, concluding

“In all probability therefore, Madame Crowe does not wish her whereabouts to be discovered as she had given no number in a street a full half a mile long.”

Considering the upheaval in France from the fall and two exiles of Napoleon, with the involvement of the European Coalition to restore the Bourbon monarchy, Paris was perhaps one of the easiest places in Europe to stay hidden at this time.


Le Temple de ‘Amour, Malmaison (HJ PC:301)

Aside from commissions from friends and acquaintances, William’s main reason for travelling through Europe appears to have been to take in objects of art and architecture, for which the small group visited Malmaison on 19 July. This chateau was ‘a favourite retreat of the late Emperor’s and the Empress Josephine’; Josephine had bought the estate while Napoleon was in Egypt, with the expected proceeds of that campaign. She spent years and a small fortune restoring the chateau and its gardens as well as creating a menagerie which roamed free through the grounds. After her divorce from Napoleon in 1810, Josephine kept the chateau until her death in 1814. William recalled his father often telling him:

“the frowning of Paris on the very mentioned of which [Malmaison] is infamous…”

Of course, it wasn’t just France which was going through difficult times politically; there was a good reason why William wanted all of the news from old England. He noted his whereabouts on 19 July 1821 for a good reason: it was the date of King George IV’s coronation, after the death of the mad King George III in 1820. George IV had been Prince Regent during periods of his father’s incapacitating illnesses, although he had largely left the role of governance of the country to his politicians. While the coronation of the new King appeared didn’t appear to threaten any crisis, there was drama on the day due to George IV’s difficult relationship with his wife.


Coronation banquet of George IV by an unknown artist, c.1821

Having been married in 1795, reluctantly, to Princess Caroline of Brunswick, the Prince Regent’s marriage quickly ran into difficulty. After the birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte, the royal couple separated in 1796. Queen Caroline went to live on the continent in 1814, but at her husband’s coronation in 1821 she decided to return to London to assert her rights. William noted:

We hear that everything went off quietly in London with the exception of a few broken windows and that the Queen applied for admission at the doors of the [Westminster] Abbey and was refused”

George refused to recognise Caroline as Queen, and made efforts to ensure that European monarchs did likewise. Although he tried to divorce her and later to annul the marriage, these efforts proved unpopular with the public. In the end, the marriage ended quietly: Caroline became ill on the day of the coronation and died on 7 August, with some rumours that she had been poisoned. William’s brief note of the incidents on coronation day suggest that he, at least, had little interest in the quarrels of the royal family. In any case, his excitement about his trip around Europe was far more important.

News of the coronation reaches William in Paris

William was not the only architect who had left Britain to experience the culture and art of the rest of Europe; as well as his friend Mr. Brooks, with whom he had travelled from Dover, a Mr Angell joined them on their onward journey from Paris to Rome. William wrote:

“He is a young man of good sense and possesses a zeal for his profession without which something is a mere dead letter.”

The band of architects sound more like serious professional scholars than a gap year party, but then it’s likely that William would have wanted to impress the seriousness of his enterprise onto his father who was paying his bills.’Living at Paris and travelling expenses are so much higher than I had at all imagined’ he complained in his letter;

“and with every endeavour to keep [expenses] as low as possible, I find that they have exceeded my proposed expenditure a full third”

Even so, he assured his father that the costs would drop once they left the capital, although ‘the French are always on the alert to overcharge an Englishman’. It was not, he insisted, the pursuit of luxury which had cause this spending;

“nor do I imagine I could spend a single franc less consistent with any thing like comfort or respectability were I to recommence my journey tomorrow’

William’s letter from Paris

William evidently thought of his family at home frequently during his time away; his father, mother, sister, Mr Evans and ‘Jane’ are mentioned in every letter. This letter also mentions another member of the family;

“I am sorry to hear poor Dick has been obliged to undergo an operation.”

As I was transcribing the letter, I thought that sounded interesting; who was Dick? Probably not a member of the immediate family, but perhaps a servant or someone close enough to the Harris family that they had ensured he got the operation which he needed? Leaving aside the difficulties of nineteenth century surgery, I thought that this would give an intriguing insight into a gentleman’s relationship with his dependants. In some ways, it does, but not quite as I was expecting. William goes on:

“It would be perhaps be as well to avoid taking him over the stones as much as possible. He is an excellent little horse but tis a pity he has not a lighter vehicle to draw…”

So there you go, the Harris family were very close to their horses! William goes on to advise his father on how to deal with Dick’s lameness, with as much interest as if he was a long-term servant of the family.

“[I’m sorry to hear that] poor Dick has been obliged to undergo an operation”

The small band of architects intended to leave Paris on 31 July and continue their journey via Compiegne, Rheims, Dijon, Lyons, Nismes and then reach Geneva. The itinerary was not fixed;

“at the first mentioned places our stay will be uncertain and will be regulated by the interest they excite.”

And while he was racing around Europe, William was eager to stay in touch with his friends and family at home;

“If yourself or my sister could possibly find time to write to me immediately on the receipt of this by the very next bag…”

“…by the very next bag…”

Sending off his tightly packed, overwritten letter back home, William presumably went off to enjoy his last week in Paris, and to gather some more anecdotes to tell in his next letters. It’s just a lucky coincidence that these letters have survived nearly 200 years so that we can share his excitement today.

William’s letter from Paris and related archival materials will be on display in the Templeman foyer for a limited time only! Pop in to have a look and learn more, including why Lord Byron was causing a stir in Paris in 1821.