Body, Mind and Soul: the Making of Lord Byron
Lord Byron was an exquisite curator of his image. He shaped, controlled and distributed it with clear purpose. Capturing his creative mind and passionate soul, his carefully staged and always flattering portraits helped to enhance his literary work. This selection of works from the Government Art Collection and Newstead Abbey will guide you through Byron's self-fashioning process, bringing to light insightful connections between the works from both collections.
‘An Old, Old monastery once’
The association with Lord Byron has cemented Newstead Abbey in the popular imagination across the world. Byron, however, was not the first creative mind to be inspired by this beautiful landscape. Newstead has been an inspiration for artists and writers ever since the house was built in the 12th century.
John Bell’s View of Newstead was painted in 1866, 42 years after Byron’s death. The canvas is huge, measuring over 3 x 2 metres, and hangs on Newstead’s north staircase. This view differs from most of Newstead, in that it is taken from far back on the west side of the upper lake, and includes no people.
This view comes closest to capturing the incredible sense of place that Byron described so vividly in his writing – this majestic gothic ruin, central to an atmosphere of ruined, desolate isolation. The small boat on the lake is a reference to Byron’s great uncle William, the 5th Lord Byron. William held mock naval battles here with his personal fleet of ships and live cannon. One of his gothic cannon forts is just visible on the western shore, nearly engulfed by the wild forest.
While Newstead’s mystique was the perfect backdrop for staging lively entertainment, it also inspired spectacular optic experiments such as Cornelius Varley’s view. A watercolourist and an optical instrument maker, Varley was the inventor of the graphic telescope. A variation of the camera lucida, this scientific instrument enabled Varley and his fellow artists to not only draw an object by tracing it, but also to translate the image seen through the eyepiece into line, tone and colour. Patented in 1811 and specifically intended to support artists to record the world as accurately as possible, Varley’s exquisite invention received great acclaim at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Varley visited Newstead in September 1824, five months after Byron’s death, making precise drawings of the Abbey’s ruined arch. No doubt, his optical device enabled him to create a painting that appears to be the visual equivalent to Byron’s description of the place from his poem Don Juan: ‘before the mansion lay a lucid lake, broad as transparent, deep and freshly fed by a river’. Varley’s painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy annual exhibition of 1825 with the long title Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, formerly the residence of the late Lord Byron, taken from the garden, showing his dog’s tomb, and the Annesley Diadem, now the seat of Col. Wildman. It was the new owner who invited Byron’s daughter and great mathematician Ada Lovelace, to visit Newstead to embrace her father’s legacy.
With its many layers, Newstead Abbey was, just like Varley’s all-absorbing and translucent lake, a vivid reflection of Byron’s poetic, inventive and eccentric mind.