Going on a Summer Holiday? 11: an unexpected discovery

By the spring of 1823, William Harris Junior had experienced adventure, excitement and astonishment as he journeyed through Europe on a late version of the Grand Tour, extending his architectural studies. He and his small band of architects, gathered en route, had hoped to travel to Greece to take in the antiquities there, but the continent was hardly a tranquil place in the aftermath of Napoeonic War and Greece was out of bounds. Because of this, Harris and his remaining friends journeyed next to Sicily, and on the 1st February 1823, William wrote to his father from Selinunte. This detour, however, was no disadvantage, as he explained to his father;

“The antiquities of Sicily are generally passed over much too hastily by professional men but the reason is perhaps that they mostly travel here after having visited Greece where the remains are undoubtedly of a higher class.”

Indeed, William considered it best to have visited Sicily first, believing that the studies he made there would shorten the time it was necessary for him to spend in Greece.

Image of an early 19th century map of Regent's Park and surrounds, London.

The pleasant surroundings of Norton Street (far right) were a contrast to William’s accomodation on his travels.

In spite of the excitement of the journey thus far, and the strange and intriguing practices which William had experienced since leaving London in 1821, he still found life on the road a challenge. His father lived in the fashionable area of Norton Place (modern day Bolsover Street) in London, while William was appalled to hear that his sister and her family were having to move out of the capital. During his journey, however, William had to make do with what accommodation he could find; one night on the road, the small group were forced to “sleep on mattresses only in an uninhabited palace”. On 16th December, William and his friends stayed in the Ducal palace of Castel Vetrano, “but I can assure you we have not been worse off in Sicily than on the night of our arrival”.


“There was no kind of inn in the town and all the accommodation the palace afforded was wretched mattresses, damp and dirty, and this on a cold winter’s night. I preferred lying down in my cloak”

The gentlemen had better luck the following evening, however, when a local man known to Mr Ingham, an English merchant they had met on the road, provide bedding to lessen the austerity of the ducal quarters.

Elsewhere, they enjoyed better hospitality; amused “by the contrast between Sicilian and English manners”, William related their attendance at a ‘conversasione’ at Castel Ternisi, with a friend of Ingham’s:

“Ladies are rarely present at these parties, the Sicilians being of a very jealous turn and in this instance their places were supplied by a row of colored French portraits of the Beauties of different nations arranged around the walls. Several of the party wore white nightcaps among others an old Sicilian Baron but this practice is very general in Sicily.”

William had a habit of discovering friends on his travels. By the time of this letter, he was still in company with Mr Brooks, with whom he had travelled since France (the gentleman had turned up late at Calais), Thomas Angell and Mr Atkinson. In addition to Ingham, the group travelled from Gingenti with a Sicilian lawyer, who “afforded us some amusement on the road”. A “very timid horseman”, this lawyer got into difficulties when fording a river:

“he allowed his beast to lie down…skipping from his back [to a stone in the river]…. The animal no sooner found himself at liberty than he began to roll and completely bathed the saddle bags while the poor man hardly thinking himself safe on his little island desperately waded to shore.”

Harris and his friends, now seasoned travellers, were evidently highly amused by this escapade.

The front of William's letter from Selinunte

As with previous letters, William crammed as much writing as he could onto one sheet of paper.

Even this far into the journey, after exploring the Mer de Glace of Mont Blanc and scaling Mount Etna, William still found new sights awe inspiring:

“About an hour before arriving at Palermo the heights command a fine view of the rich plains in which the city is built. A Theatre of mountains encircles it which running out into the sea form the two points of the Bay. The promenade at Palermo extends nearly a mile along the seaside. It surpasses even that of Naples and is by far the finest I have ever seen.”

Although the stay in Palermo proved short, William evidently liked the town, which abounded with convents and monasteries, many of which he described as occupying the upper stories on buildings, with shops on the lower floor. With palaces, Public Gardens and a fine promenade for both walking and driving, Palermo would have been a comfortable holiday destination, but William and his friends were seeking more adventure. Once they had their supplies, they set off for Segista: William and Atkinson on foot.

It was by damp, newly ploughed ground, that they found their way to Trapani, a town he described as ‘very singular being nearly surrounded by the sea’. It had, William added, ‘the appearance of an encampment’, due to its pyramids of salt heaped around its environment. The salt trade served William and his friends well, as one of its key merchants, a Mr Woodhouse, “received us in the most hearty manner”.

Image of quotation extract from the letter.However, it was the ruins of ancient Selinus which had been the object of all this travel, a site which William explained comprised six temples: three on one hill and three on another. The original plan had been to lodge in Castel Vetrano and journey to study the site each day, but the architects’ enthusiasm soon made them begrudge the amount of time they had to spend travelling to and from their studies. With the permission of the Cavaliere, they thus moved into a small house ‘within a stone’s throw from the temple’. It was largely unfurnished, but the Cavaliere permitted the architects to take furniture from Vetrano, and the gentlemen soon took on a cook and a servant, one to take care of the house and the other to visit the market at Castel Vetrano each day. This, William explained, enabled the gentlemen to ‘employ all our day light to the most advantage’.

These quarters were ‘not so comfortless as we expected’, perhaps in part due to their experiences thus far on their travels. In any case, William explained to his father in London, although the windows had only shuttered, having never been glazed, the Sicilian weather made this quite bearable. “By this you may see how totally different is the climate of Sicily from that of our foggy atmosphere.” And in any case, the location enabled the William, his friend Angell and the rest, to make some exciting discoveries.

According to William, there was some material published on three of the temples by an architect named Wilkins ‘who formally lived in New Cavendish Street’, but this was ‘full of errors’. The rest, nearest to the sea shore (one no more than ¼ mile from it) had, Harris stated, ‘never been published at all certainly not in England’. This, then, was an exciting opportunity for the young architects.

Ground plan of three temples (O, C and D) on the Western Hill at Selinunte

Ground plan of three temples (O, C and D) on the Western Hill at Selinunte, drawn by William Harris. From the British Museum Collections.

“They are all a heap of ruins but all the points may be form[e]d or nearly so with a little trouble. By the help of a little excavation we have able to form (I hope) tolerably correct ideas of their plans and proportions. The advantage of being on the spot has perhaps never been possessed by any travellers before.”


In closing the letter, William detailed the architects’ plans for the following months, begging his father for an extension to his trip – adding that Angell had already received just such a dispensation from his father. He explained: “a year’s study at the end of a tour is certainly more valuable than two at its commencement”. There was still much, after all, to see: Naples, Pompeii, Herculaneum and, he still hoped, Greece. Harris intended to begin his homeward journey in the spring of 1824, via the Venetian States, to arrive in London at the end of June. By then, he would have been away from home for 3 years, and have experienced much on his journey. But these plans were never to come to fruition. In the excavations at Selinus, Harris and Angell discovered far more than they ever bargained for, and their youthful enthusiasm would result in a rather sudden journey home for just one of the pair: the other would never return to London.

In a postscript, William adds the note “I am really sorry to hear you have lost poor Dick” – this was the horse whose illness had provoked much comment in previous correspondence between father and son. Having been lamed but undergone an operation, it seemed that Dick had never recovered. William noted: “he was an excellent animal and I fear you will with difficulty find one to suit your purpose so well”.

Recently, there’s been an exciting development in this tale: drawings by Harris and Angell, deposited at the British Museum are now being catalogued and digitised. I hope you’re as excited as me about this: you can see more on the BM’s Collection Online pages.

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? 9.2: in the shadow of the mountain

In the last post, I split William’s letter from Syracuse in two, since he (and I) had spent so much time talking about the delights of Taormina and the ‘original characters’ he discovered en route. As I mentioned, there was more than a little daredevil in these Georgian travellers, and the rest of William’s ninth letter is taken up with his ascent of Mount Etna. It seems this was one of the things which intrepid travellers tended to do at this period, but William has such an evocative writing stlye, I thought it would be a shame to cut the post short.

The shadow of Etna, stretching along in two distant lines meeting in a point might be plainly traced in the tranquil bosom of the ocean and slowly and majestically erecting itself in air, appeared embodied on the vapours and clouds suspended between earth and heaven, as the glorious luminary sank into the horizon.

Illustration of 'Etna Chestnut trees'

Illustration of ‘Etna Chestnut Trees’ from ‘Picturesque Europe’, p.200

As I mentioned last time, William had a journal with him, the entries from which he transcribed in his letter to his father – which we have in our collection. It’s unusual in that it offers a rather blow-by-blow account of the trip, including the specific dates. So we know that the group set off on 31st May 1822 at noon, having left Taormina for Nicolosi the day before. At this point, the group passed through a rather desolate area beneath a clear sky; finding that the sparse trees had been rather mutilated and were not particularly ‘fine’. Comparing the mountainside to the ‘Cultivated Regions’ lower down, which William had been singularly unimpressed with, he now considered those wooded regions ‘a paradise’. After meeting the obligitary mountain goats and being entertained with music from their herder, the group continued on:

The ascent gradually became more rapid and the keenness of the air became more sensible. Continuing our way through a country – perhaps ages long past smiling and fertile but now the empire of gloom and desolation, we finally lost all trace of vegetation and found ourselves every moment envelopped in the mist and clouds, which hastily swept along the sterile surface until they attained the loftiest ridgeof Etna, when they were instantly hurled away by a stronger and continuing wind to the mountain plains below, to commence another attempt equally futile to pass the forbidden ridge. The summit of the mountain (the grand crater) was occasionally visible through the clouds crossing each other in various directions. It was casting forth huge volumes of thick white sulphureous smoke.

Not to be put off by the obvious danger, nor the sudden cold and snow, the group went on to the ‘Casa Inglese’, a small house constructed, apparently, by a subscription of British officers in 1811. One can only assume that the ascent of Mount Etna was part of the package tour even in the early 19th century! Compared with today, however, the accomodation was basic:

It contains 3 chambers, the door opening into the centre room. Here the floor was covered with thick ice and in a closet was a mass of frozen snow at least 3 feet in height. We were lodged in one of the side rooms which had been divested of such benumbing companions and found a good charcoal fire which our avant-courier had prepared.

Leaving a man to prepare their dinner, William and his friends then went walkabout, to see the sunset and also marvel at the mysterious ‘Philosopher’s Tower’;

Some suppose it to have been erected for the reception of the Emperor Hadrian, when he visited this mountain; others imagine it to have been the mausoleum of some capricious being who wished his remains to be deposited in a place far remote from the haunts of man, but nothing is known with certainty.

Extract from Stockdale's 'Geography'

Extract from Stockdale’s ‘Geography’, published in 1800 and perhaps an inspiration for William’s travels.

On their walk, it became clear how recently eruptions had been taking place; craters from the 1669 eruption were visible near Nicolosi, while the route to the Case Inglese was marked by a stream of lava from 1787, less than 50 years prior to William’s visit. The effect of the white snow alongside this ‘rich brown hue’ offered ‘a scene at once grand and perfectly novel’. The last eruption prior to their visit, it seems, was in 1819, but the dangers clearly did not concern the travellers as they enjoyed the scenery:

That side of the crater towards the Casa Inglese has two horns or points with a deep valley between them running down the side of the crater and partly filled with snow. In our lofty position we were the last human beings to whom the sun lent his rays in the same longitude and we were deprived of them a considerable time before they bad a short adieu to the towering pinnacles above. The shades of evening gradually stole along the plains till every remote object became indistinct. The clear silver moon shone in silent majesty and seemed to give token “of a goodly day to-morrow”. The air now became so piercingly cold, that we were glad to take shelter and close around our fire.

After a brief meal, and after the mules had been sent to the lower ground (to be watched over, presumably, by local guides), William and his friends tried to sleep. Using their saddles as pillows and wrapping themselves in their cloaks, in spite of all their adventuring spirit, did not work well. In any case, they rose at daybreak on the 1st June but found thick clouds swarming around the summit, so were unable to start the climb until 6am. In fact, William seems to have felt it rather less of a struggle than he had anticipated; ‘deceived by various exaggerated accounts we imagined it to be an Herculean task’, so losing the good weather they might have enjoyed had they begun the previous evening.

It took around an hour for the band of intrepid travellers to reach the summit, which was covered in thick smoke, with the cloud having rolled back in so that they ‘could distinguish only a few yards around us’. Reaching the ‘ne plus ultra’ seemed rather an anti-climx:

…thick vapourous smoke from every part which has so suffocating an effect that I scarcely hoped to be enabled to remain a single minute but on changing my position and thus getting to windward of it, the difficulty of breathing immediately left me. In some parts the ground was so hot under our feet it was impossible to remain there long. The sulphurous vapours were so dense and copious in the water, we could merely discern it had a rapid declination and judge of the distance by listening to the protracted noise occasioned by masses of stone rolled into it by the guide.

Of course, being men of the Enlightenment, it was not just the views which they had come to see. At the height of the volcano, they noticed a ‘varied grandeur of effects’, including the speed with which the clouds passed by, wrapping the little band in thick fog, unable to see one another while the land below was drenched in sunlight. From the summit, it also seemed as though the ocean ‘appeared to rise to our own level’.

We here observed a very curious effect produced by the sun beams, when now and then they shone through the clouds. Our shadows were cast on the vapours of the water and each of us saw his own enriched by a faint Iris of the hues of the rainbow and eccentric rays darting from it. We had observed a similar effect, but no Iris, from the shadow of the mountain on the vapours of the preceding evening, that is to say the eccentric rays alone.

1930s postcard of Mount Etna

1930s postcard of Mount Etna, on which the volcano is described as “past all desription – BEAUTIFUL – early in the morning – with a blue sky & almond blossom”. From the Hewlett Johnson Collection.

After two hours in the thin air and cold, the band descended to reach the Casa Inglese in half an hour, but were far from finished with the mountain. They decided to return to Nicolosi via the Valle di Bove so that they could see ‘the celebrated Chestnut of a Hundred Horse’ – the oldest known chestnut tree in the world. The cloud remained heavy during the descent, when they found themselves walking over the remains of two earlier eruptions – 1811 and two month long eruption of 1819, which had destroyed a significant portion of farmland. This area, William wrote, was ‘covered with ashes and wrapt in silence’, with the going hard, each footstep sinking them ‘a foot deep’ – ascent via this route was impossible, but the sights seem to have been worth the struggle. They passed a stream of lava from the latest eruption which were still smoking with sulphur. A little further on, the group paused to admire the view (and no doubt to get their collective breath back), but the guide warned them:

not to loiter on – as the masses of strata are apt to detach themselves and roll into the narrow valley below

After four hours, they came in sight of their goal, and another hour brought them to the Chestnut of a Hundred Horse – an impressive but apparently not entirely impressing sight.

It consists of 5 distinct trunks all very much decayed…but however one might be inclined to believe these several huge masses to have been formerly united (each…forms a noble tree) it required a greater degree of reliance on the tradition than we could summon…to feel convinced of such an apparent impossibility.

In spite of William and his companions doubting, the several thousand years’ old tree is apparently still connected to a single root system below ground, even though the trunks are now seperated above ground.

After their ‘day of contrasts’, William and his friends found lodgings in a nearby village for a well-earned rest, although they discovered their host ‘a profligate steward of our purses’ after presenting the extravagant bill. On returning to Nicolosi, their host was delighted to hear of their exploits and advised them that ‘our excursion…had never been undertaken by foreigners in his recollection’. From Nicolosi, the group journeyed on the Catania, then to Syracuse, where William and fellow architect Thomas Angell went back to their favourite task of measuring, this time the local Temple of Minerva and an ancient Greek theatre.

Illustration of 'Syracuse, from the Greek Theatre'

Illustration of ‘Syracuse, from the Greek Theatre’ from ‘Picturesque Europe’.

William closes his letter with an assurance that his expenses fall well within his allowance, and a plea for news from ‘Old England’. One of their number, Mr Butts, had returned to England earlier and William asked for news of his friends to be passed on, recalling their trip across the Mer de Glace at Chamonix and commenting that climbing Etna had been much easier. Perhaps he had become used to the excitement and hardship of travel, after a year roaming the Continent. From Syracuse, William and his friends journeyed on across Sicily, looking for adventure. I suspect that what they found was not what any of them were expecting… But that’s a tale for another time, and with three letters still left in this series, hopefully I’ll finish the story before it’s actually taken the length of William’s long trip!

Going on a summer holiday? 9.1: what William did next

The last time I posted on this topic, I’ve discovered, was back in April last year. It’s been more than a year now, and I do feel that I have neglected poor old William Harris, having left him in Rome at the Carnival of 1822. That’s not to say that my Wm Harris Syracuse d sealenthusiasm for discovering more about his journey has diminished; in fact, the other day I was idly glancing through a holiday brochure and saw a package tour around Sicily, covering Mount Etna, Palermo, Siracusa and Taormina and got a bit over excited. No, this isn’t my planned holiday for this year (not at that price!) but this does follow the journey which William and his friends took nearly 200 years ago. In fact, it looks like William was part of the team which undertook some of the earliest work on these now very popular tourist destinations.

For anyone who is new to this series, some time ago (longer than I care to admit) one of our volunteers discovered some correspondence in an uncatalogued tin box which turned out to be letters written by one William Harris Junr. to his father, in Norton Place, during the 1820s. William (the younger) was an architect who had set off around Europe to discover the classical knowledge which was key to his profession, and undertook something of what we’d now call the role of art historian and archaeologist during his trip.Having crossed from Dover to Calais, taken in Paris, Geneva and the towns of northern Italy, William and his friends reached Rome in the autumn of 1821. From there, because of the ongoing wars in Greece, they set out for Sicily, where the journey eventually reached its thrilling conclusion.

If you’re new to this series, do take a look back at the other posts; if you’ve been following the story so far, I do hope that the long delay in this installment hasn’t put you off!

An image of William's letter

William’s letter from Syracuse

While the tourist brochure I was looking at provides much the same route as William took, the early nineteenth century experience of such tourism was rather different to our own. For one thing, the roads were more dangerous; our little group of travellers has already experienced the threat of robbery and kidnap, storms in the mountains and the threat of pestilence at Livorno. In addition, whether it’s particularly true of this group, or whether this applies more widely to travllers at this time, there seems to have been a fasination with getting close to danger. I’ve already related how William descended into a crater, tied to a piece of rope, but found that the heat of the (volcanic) earth scorched through his thick bootsoles in a few minutes. I imagine that, given the dangers inherent in travel, there had to be an element of the daredevil in you to set out on these journeys at all. This letter proves no exception: in June 1822, William and his friends decided to climb Mount Etna.

The missive is one of the longest in the series – not overwritten but put down in tiny handwritng on a large, unfolder sheet. Perhaps this was some of his drawing paper, requisitioned for the purpose, but in any case, for the sake of sanity, I’m going to have to split this letter into two. So, before they got as far as Etna, he and his friends took in the sights of Taormina, learned about local history and ran afoul of a Superior-General’s election.

Of course, being drawn to danger did not necesarilly mean embracing discomfort: William found the lack of roads in Sicily deplorable, claiming that this was a detriment to ‘commerce and improvments of almost every kind’. Apparently, the English had earlier tried to build roads on the island, but their imposition of tolls on the populartion failed, since ‘the toll houses were destroyed in the night’. Since the roads couldn’t support a carriage of any kind, William noted the use of a ‘settiga’ in the locality, which he described as ‘a whimsical sort of horse-sedan…. It resembles somewhat the form of a “Vis-à-vis”…but in the style of a …hackney coach.’ This rather confusing description leads to all kinds of stretching of the imagination, but does show how alien William and his friends found the customs of this country which we now consider only a couple of hours’ distant.

William describes the 'vis-a-vis' contraption

William describes the ‘vis-a-vis’ contraption

Despite the intrigue of the settiga, donkeys were the made method of conveyance for the small band of architects as they set out from Messina on foot. At Palermo, the small group was joined by a Mr. Atkinson, ‘a well informed and agreeable man, about 30’. This gentleman had studied law, but had given up the profession and spent the previous four years travelling the Continent. As you may recall, the rest of William’s travelling companions were all architects (which has led me to wonder whether Europe was awash with young English architects at this point, or whether they just travelled in packs), but Atkinson need not have felt left out. William explains that Atkinson had spent the time travelling with two architects, friends of Thomas Angell, who had joined the group in Paris. The longest serving member of the group, besides William, seems to have been something of the comedy partner. Mr. Brooks arrived late in Dover, so that William considered leaving without him, insisted having packing cases of fashionable clothes sent out from England and appears to have let William add notes to his own letters to assure his family that he was safe. This trek from Messina to Taormina proved no different:

Brooks – who likes to get through the world easily – mounted a donkey at the end of the first 12 miles

The rest of the group, however, continued on foot, reaching Taormina only to discover that their timing had been somewhat unfortunate. While they had hoped to stay at the Benedictine Convent, they found that ‘the place was so full of priests’; 300, in face, who had assembled for the election of a Superior-general. Having reached their goal, the travellers were determined to make the best of it, and lodged at ‘a dirty inferior ‘Locanda’…into a room so filthy that after the first night we determined on sleeping at a tolerable inn 2 miles off and close to the sea shore’. This extra distance appears to have paid off, at least in terms of comfort, but did mean that the architects had to start the ascent to Taormina’s Greek ampitheatre before sunrise, to avoid the ‘fatigue of 2 miles of steep ascent’.

Once a part of the kingdom of Syracuse, the settlement of Taormina was well established by the time the Romans arrived in the third century BC. The town provided plenty ‘antiquities’, and was already popular with antiquarians when William and his friends visited. The theatre proved a point of particular interest for William;

The situation of this theatre is magnificent; placed on the ridge of a fine chain of mountains which run out to the sea, it commands scenery of the grandest description… Angell and myself…determined on measuring it – it proved a work of tedious duration from the difficulty of attaining dimensions, being much ruined

A modern view of the theatre at Taormina

A modern view of the theatre at Taormina

Of the other antiquities in the town, William proved less enamoured, adding that they were ‘generally much dilapidated.’ Perhaps the same could be said of the official to whom they were introduced in Taormina; ‘we immediately found he was an original character’, since he quickly showed them a bundle of materials he was looking to publish when he learned about the reason for their visit. They had further evidence of his status as ‘an original character’ that evening:

he gave us an invitation to attend his public lecture in the ancient Greek theatre in the evening. Several of his friends were present and a young man read aloud his chapter on that monument of antiquity which he interrupted “ever and anon” by his own personal explanations, given with great emphasis and in a strong nasal tone.

On 30 May, the group left Taormina for Nicolasai, where they found the widespread use of lava in buildings and the burnt soil made the place ‘sombre and uninviting’. The better sort of buildings met with more approval from the architects:

the cornices are of black lava and the walls covered with white plaster, a most singular contrast; one may almost call it architecture in mourning.

From there, they learned that a local physician and professor was in the habit of putting up travellers intent on climbing the mountain and, in spite of a rather English mix up over a lack of letters of introduction, William and his friends were welcomed to rest before their ascent the following day. Here, his letter breaks off to explain to his father that he will transcibe directly from his notebook – if this is the case, then he has a wonderful turn of phrase even when busy climbing a mountain!

William’s narrative is so illuminating and detailed that I think it’s best to leave this until another post – or else you’ll be here for another hour at least. But I promise I’ll do better, this time, to finish the tale in good time so that we can take in the last few stops on William’s journey at a leisurely pace. One thing you can be sure of – it won’t be a dull holiday, and there are probably more ‘original characters’ to come!


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.

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