Shelley’s Ghost

This summer’s major exhibition at The Wordsworth Trust at Grasmere consists largely of portraits of many of those associated with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and original notebooks and MS pages.

First is the permanent display in the upper room, with its regular Wordsworth portraits and the haunted, addicted Coleridge portrait by James Northcote that is one of the Trust’s prize pieces. All the pictures here are dark, obsessive, and intense. Down the stairs are smaller portraits and some pieces left over from the Ancient mariner exhibition a couple of years ago. Illustrations of the poem by Hunt Emerson, which are fun, and by Mervyn Peake which are amongst the best I’ve seen (along side Dore.) That was a significant, meaningful and broad ranging exhibition.

This, for the casual visitor or the would-be expert alike, is a curiously incomplete experience. There a re portraits and there are cabinets with notebooks, fair copies and correspondence, all of it hard to read under glass this way. The captions are brief and, to my eyes didn’t really tie in with the supposed theme.

That said, there is something special about being able to gaze at portraits I’m so intensely familiar with from books. As I walked in I saw Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, in that ubiquitos, severe lookinglate portrait by Richard Rothwell. Along side her on one wall, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. On her other side one of the poorer portraits of Percy Bysshe Shelley by the Rome-based English amateur Amelia Curran. And oh, the Westall Byron, with the pouting red lips and hair curl giving him elfin ears. Between those though is the one that thrilled me for entirely personal reasons. Amelia Curran again, the only known portrait of Claire Caremont, all curls and rosy cheeks and wicked twinkling eyes. Clare hated it, and seeing it alongside Curran’s overly flushed and chubby Shelley, is it reasonable to suggest Claire’s pretty face has been rounded out by Curran?

Nevertheless it was a delight to see these paintings close up. I do believe that most of these portraits summoned up an aspect of the sitter’s portrait. The strikingly attractive Mary Wollstonecraft (by John Opie) and the brooding, gothic Polidori by Gainsford. But there is someone missing, Ned & Jane Williams are here, a well matched couple in portraits by George Clint, but what of the Corsair? Where is Edward John Trelawny, the adventurer with the most Romantic spirit of them all? Here in the corner, a rather small but skilled sketch by Seymour Kirkup is all he gets.

Of course you may say Trelawny was a lesser figure in the group, though he would disagree, but the title of the exhibition is Shelley’s Ghost which implies something of what came after the poet’s death. A brief display of Sir Percy Florence & Lady Jane Shelley memorabilia tells a part of the story, but the legend of Shelley and of Byron that we are familiar with today is the account laid down by Trelawny and by Leigh Hunt. There is nothing here that really conveys Shelley’s poetic legacy, nor tells us what happened next for most of these fascinating people.

I know what came next, I have my multiple biographies of all of these, but for the casual visitor to The Wordsworth Trust I’m not sure there is quite enough contextual depth to the exhibition on its own. There is a lavish book that accompanies it, perhaps that explains more. There is almost as an aside a vital piece of British history alongside the portraits, the remnants of an original banner from Peterloo, a reflection of society and of the radicalism of Shelley (at times) and his friends.

I loved this exhibition for the opportunity it gave me to gaze at Claire, to be drawn to Mary Wollstonecraft, to fear for doomed Polidori, and to really see what women and men saw in Byron. I am not really sure what was in it for some of those walking around it with me, clearly unfamiliar with some of the names, and not lingering as I did.


About Kev McVeigh

Review of literary matters, mostly but not all SFF , and digressions into music and other arts. Engagement welcomed.
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