Byron: The Image of the Poet

Byron: The Image of the Poet

Byron: The Image of the Poet

Byron: The Image of the Poet

Synopsis

The fame of the Romantic poet Lord Byron rests not only on his work but also on the way he looked and the way he was portrayed during his lifetime and after his death. Originating in a conference held at the National Portrait Gallery in London, this is the first collection of papers to be published on the visual aspects of Byron and Romanticism. Topics explored include Byron's relations with the artists who portrayed him and those who commissioned portraits of him (including his publisher); his self-image and its expression in his work; the way in which his features were used in illustrations of the heroes of his poems; his role in early forms of modern celebrity visual culture such as prints, caricatures, medals, and other forms of memorabilia; the way he has been represented on screen; and his role as a political icon, Illustrated.

Excerpt

Christine Kenyon Jones

ALTHOUGH SEVERAL SINGLE-AUTHOR WORKS HAVE FOCUSED ON THE SUBJECT OF THE visual aspects of Byron and Byronism, this is the first collection of essays to be published on the topic. These essays originated in a one-day conference held on February 8, 2003, at the National Portrait Gallery in London, organized by the Gallery in association with the Byron Society and King’s College London. The conference was part of a series of events associated with the Gallery’s exhibition Mad, Bad and Dangerous: The Cult of Lord Byron, which ran from November 20, 2002, to February 16, 2003, in the Porter Gallery. The exhibition brought together over 100 works including paintings, letters, literary manuscripts, memorabilia, and examples of Byronic dress. It explored how Byron’s literary fame and social notoriety were fueled by the many visual representations of the poet, and examined his influence upon several famous figures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from Oscar Wilde to Mick Jagger.

The conference provided an opportunity for a capacity international audience in the Ondaatje Wing Theatre at the National Portrait Gallery to consider a wide range of visual manifestations of Byron: not only those recorded ad vivum—face to face—with the poet, and not only the “authorized” paintings and busts whose production Byron did his best to control during his lifetime, but also the caricatures, informal sketches, engravings, memorabilia, and film portrayals through which Byron, his features, and his image have been presented and interpreted in the nearly two centuries since his death.

This range of representation demonstrates the trajectory from Byron to Byronism: from the poet (who may or may not be identified with the “real” George Gordon Byron, sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale) to the mythic persona that is the creation not just of Byron himself but also of many other hands. These essays study Byron as an object as well as a subject in terms of cultural production. The question of how much Byron initiated or colluded with this process of mythmaking has, of course, been much debated in terms of the literary record: the Byronic hero of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the Oriental tales was from the beginning identified by readers with his creator; Byron himself felt uncertain how much in portraying the Corsair he had “deviated into the gloomy vanity of ‘drawing from self,’” and he admitted in the Dedication to canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage that he had “become weary of drawing a line which every one seemed determined not to perceive … a distinction between the author and the pilgrim” and therefore had “determined to abandon it altogether.” Sir Walter Scott reversed the usual equation between the life and the work when he commented that Byron had, through . . .

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