Byron and politics: ‘born for opposition’ – King’s College London

Manuscript of Byron’s ‘Detached Thoughts’, number 84, NLS Ms.43352

I managed to catch the King’s College exhibition about Byron just in time – it closes on Wednesday. The exhibition is displayed in the beautiful Weston Room, part of the Maughan Library, and was curated by the Foyle Special Collections Library of King’s College London and the John Murray Archive of the National Library of Scotland, for the 39th International Byron Conference in July (there’s an International Byron Conference! How awesome!).

I wanted to see the exhibition for two main reasons. One: it is full of manuscripts and rare books, which are always interesting. Two: it’s Byron! I have a bit of an obsession with the man, so there was no way I was going to miss this.

‘Byron and politics’ takes a slightly different look at the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet’s life, focusing on his political life and bringing together manuscripts, letters, printed editions and several of Byron’s personal possessions. The exhibition explores the contradictions in the poet’s thought and life: he hated the ruling Tory party but also disliked their opponents the Whigs; he was an aristocrat with a seat in the House of Lords, yet he spoke up for the poor and needy, notably in his Parliamentary speech in which he championed the cause of the Nottinghamshire Luddites; he was in love with the idea of democracy yet refused to admit the poor he knew to be capable of taking part in it. Byron greatly admired Napoleon and was overwhelmingly disappointed when he chose exile over  a ‘noble death’. He himself met his end in Missolonghi, Greece, fighting for the cause of Greek independence.

For someone whose reputation is of a wild, wicked, immoral and frivolous poet, Byron’s deep engagement with the political issues of the day are something of a revelation. This aspect of his life shows, perhaps, a deeper side to his character and a more serious one. He also seems to have had a strong sympathetic understanding of the less fortunate, though ultimately he refused to side with any one party or way of thinking, preferring to form his own views. I took a copy of the exhibition guide, so that I can revisit this aspect of Byron’s life in the future.

Harrow Old Speech Room Gallery and Museum

Harrow School is one of the most famous schools in the UK, and possibly the world. Its alumni include several writers, artists, politicians and even actors – the lovely Benedict Cumberbatch is an Old Harrovian.

The school has an art gallery and museum – the Old Speech Room Gallery – which is open to the public, though only on certain days of the week during term time. I took the opportunity to visit when I had a day off work.

The Old Speech Room was built in 1819-21 as a chamber in which to encourage public speaking. It was converted into a gallery by Alan Irvine in 1976 as a repository for the School’s distinguished collection of antiquities and fine art.

The main reason I wanted to visit at this particular time was the Cecil Beaton exhibition. Beaton was a photographer and artists who was popular in the mid-20th century. He photographed film stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe and also gained prominence as a war photographer. In my old job at Cambridge I was responsible for cataloguing his letters, so I was interested to see this exhibition of his portrait photographs. I really like his work – I’m no photographer but I can tell that his use of light and composition is brilliant.

The gallery has an interesting collection of Egyptian and Greek antiquities, and also contains artworks, including a painting by the former Prime Minister Winston Churchill. What I was most excited about, however, was the exhibition of artefacts relating to Lord Byron, including his swords and other possessions. Some of his letters were on display, and I spent a while trying to decipher his handwriting, which is surprisingly readable considering the time at which it was written. I’ve read Byron’s collected letters – they are fabulously lively and engaging, and his personality leaps off the page with every sentence. Seeing the pieces of paper on which he actually wrote was amazing.

The gallery is a bit out of the way, and the opening times aren’t always ideal, but it’s well worth visiting if you can – there’s a surprising amount to see, and it’s very interesting, not to mention free.

FACTS

Address: Harrow School, 5 High Street, Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, HA1 3HP

Website: harrowschool.org.uk/1574/public-facilities/visit-the-old-speech-room-gallery

Opening Hours: Weekdays during term time between 2.30pm and 5.00pm.

Prices: Free

A Byronic weekend

I admit to having a little bit of a crush on the Romantic poet Lord Byron. I’m always interested in finding out more about his life, and decided to do just that last weekend.

Saturday – I visited Harrow, which is where Byron went to school. I’m currently trying to visit every station on the London Underground (and blog about this here), so took the opportunity to tick off a few Harrow-related stations at the same time. I couldn’t visit the actual school, but I did go to St Mary’s church.

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Byron’s favourite spot in St Mary’s churchyard

Byron’s favourite spot is marked by a plaque. I can understand why he liked it here; it’s a lovely, calm, quiet spot, with a stunning view.

Sunday – I visited Syon Park, the London residence of the Duke of Northumberland. It has been used in several films including Gosford Park and the 2003 BBC drama about Byron’s life. The outside of the house was impressive, but the inside was magnificent.

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Syon House

Syon Abbey, which originally stood on the site, was dissolved by Henry VIII. Later, he suffered what must have seemed like divine judgement: when Henry’s body spent the night at Syon on the way to burial at Windsor, the coffin burst and dogs were found the next morning licking up the remains. The house itself was built by the first Duke of Somerset, uncle of and Lord Protector to the young King Edward VI. It was acquired in 1594 by Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland, and has remained in the family ever since.