Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Creating an Audience for a British School: L.E.L's Poetical Catalogue of Pictures in the Literary Gazette

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Creating an Audience for a British School: L.E.L's Poetical Catalogue of Pictures in the Literary Gazette

Article excerpt

   Beautiful Art! my worship is for thee--    The heart's entire devotion. When I look    Upon thy radiant wonders, every pulse    Is thrill'd as in the presence of divinity. (1) 

These opening lines of Letitia Elizabeth Landon's Poetical Catalogue of Pictures-nine poems published in The Literary Gazette between March and August 1823--convey the rapture of a connoisseur who perceives in "Art" transcendent genius. (2) One might expect that the poem's subject is an Old Master painting or a Greco-Roman sculpture, for the speaker's language of devotion reflects the enthusiasm of Hazlitt for the landscapes of Claude Lorraine or Byron for the Belvedere Apollo. (3) But Landon's subject is not the art of the past but of the present. These four lines comprise the first part of a nine-line epigraph that prefaces a poem called "Vandyke consulting his Mistress on a Picture in Cooke's Exhibition." The title indicates that the picture appeared in William Cooke's Exhibition of Engravings by Living British Artists, an event that took place at Cooke's 9 Soho Square print shop and home. (4) Landon's poem suggests a wider and more controversial definition of "Beautiful Art," which includes not only a genre scene by a living British artist but also the reproductive art of engraving.

Whether the Literary Gazette editor William Jerdan commissioned the poems or Landon conceived of the series herself is uncertain; nonetheless, the sequence of nine poems form a cohesive group, documenting paintings and at least one engraving that appeared in London exhibitions between 1822 and 1823. The Poetical Catalogue is strikingly original in the periodical literature of this decade in its attempt to create an audience for British artists, including printmakers, and while Landon's participation in giftbook and annual culture has received critical attention, her role as a writer for the Literary Gazette has not been fully explored. (5) Landon's serialized poems not only versify different aspects of art writing in this period, particularly the exhibition catalogue entry and the generalist art review, but also anticipate the rise of poetry written exclusively for literary annual illustrations.


Landon knew William Jerdan and his family from childhood, and her involvement in the Literary Gazette originates in their close working relationship and secret love affair. (6) Landon grew tip across the street from Jerdan and his family in Brompton, and, admiring her literary ambition and talent, he published her first poem in the Literary Gazette in March 1820. (7) Jerdan's tutelage, as his biographer Susan Matoff characterizes their relationship, launched Landon's career as an author. At this time Jerdan took Landon to "exhibitions of paintings, an art form he especially enjoyed, and one which was a direct inspiration for her poetry" (Matoff, p. 127). It is in this period that Landon began writing unsigned reviews for Jerdan, who credits her with "doing little less for the Gazette than I did myself' (cited in Matoff, p. 129). In the summer of 1822, Jerdan introduced Landon to his friend the artist Richard Dagley for whom she wrote three poems entitled Sketches from designs by Mr. Dagley, published in July and August issues of the Literary Gazette. Matoff notes that "it was quite an achievement for Landon to produce poetry about pictures in a magazine which did not print the illustrations from which the poems derived" (p. 131.) It is likely that Landon saw the pictures either in an exhibition or in print reproduction and wrote the Literary Gazette's art notices.

Landon's choice of title asserts the relevance of her poetic sequence in public art discourse: Poetical Catalogue of Pictures is--as the second word of the title announces--a kind of exhibition catalogue within the pages of a periodical. The role of the exhibition catalogue by the 1820s was both to document the pictures in an exhibition and contribute to the experience of looking at a picture by including literary quotations. …

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