On This Day in 1820: What Did Byron Really Look Like?

      Comments Off on On This Day in 1820: What Did Byron Really Look Like?

The BARS ‘On This Day’ Series celebrates the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period. Want to contribute a future post? Get in touch.

Today we are delighted to share a post co-authored by Geoffrey Bond (former Chairman of the Byron Society) and Christine Kenyon Jones (King’s College London). This post marks 200 years since Byron wrote a letter in October 1820 about the gossip suggesting he had been seen in London when he was actually thousands of miles away. It also celebrates the publication of their new book (click link to get your own copy!): Dangerous to Show: Byron and His Portraits. Enjoy!

On this day in 1820

‘A new ghost story for you’[1]

What did Byron really look like?

In October 1820, in Ravenna, doppelgangers were much on Byron’s mind. His publisher John Murray had told him that someone had just bet 100 guineas that they had seen Byron in London. And this was nothing new. In 1810, Byron told Murray, when he had actually been at Patras, he had apparently been encountered twice in St James’s Street, London by his schoolfellow Robert Peel and his brother — and had also been ‘seen by somebody to write down my name amongst the Enquirers after the King’s health – then attacked by insanity’. 

And just recently, Byron added, he had met a man at Ferrara who asked him if he knew Lord Byron. ‘I told him no – (no one knows himself you know) “then” says he – “I do – I met him at Naples the other day”.’

What was it about Byron that made people feel they knew him and what he looked like, even when they actually didn’t? The question of how he really appeared, and why he seemed both so individual and so chameleon-like, was one of the main motivations for Geoffrey Bond and me when we were writing our new book: Dangerous to Show: Byron and His Portraits (just published by Unicorn). 

Verbally, Byron’s poems are full of his personality, of course. And visually there seems to have been a combination of strong, individual facial features with a set of characteristics that indicated ‘Byron’ – even when in fact the image might look nothing like him.

So in 1822 Lorenzo Bartolini spent many hours face-to-face with Byron sculpting this fine clay bust – described by Thomas Medwin as ‘an admirable likeness’.[2]

Lorenzo Bartolini, ‘Terracruda’ bust of Byron, 1822. Courtesy of Libson & Yarker.

But the only version that Byron himself ever saw of the finished sculpture was this engraving by Raphael Morghen, 

Raphael Morghen, engraving of the Bartolini bust of Byron, 1822. Private collection.

which, he complained ‘overlooked seventy’ and ‘exactly resembled a superannuated jesuit’.[3]

Similarly, this sketch from life by George Harlow in 1816 

George Harlow, profile sketch of Byron, 1815. Private collection

went through generations of engravings until it emerged looking like this 

Gottfried Engelmann, engraved frontispiece for English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (Paris: Galignani, 1819).

and was described by Marianne Hunt as ‘a great schoolboy who had been given a plain bun instead of a plum one’.[4]

Sometimes all that was needed to signify ‘Byron’ was an open shirt-collar, curly hair, strong jaw and a receding hairline,

Joseph West, ‘Lord Byron, from a sketch taken on his leaving England’, engraving, c. 1816. Private collection.
Maxim Gauci, ‘George Gordon, Lord Byron, To Chandos Leigh Esqr.’ (c.1819). Private collection.

Indeed ‘puzzle prints’ such as this one 

Henry Burn, ‘The Spirit of Byron in The Isles of Greece’, 1825. Private collection.

played on these features by inviting viewers to spot the open white collar, Byronic profile and the characteristic hairline, hidden among the vegetation of ‘The Isles of Greece’.

‘I have often seen engravings prefixed to the works of his Lordship,’ remarked Captain Forrester, who met Byron in Greece in 1824, ‘but great was my astonishment, although prepared to make a fair allowance to artists, to see before me a being bearing as little resemblance to the pretended fac-simile, as I to Apollo.’[5]

After Byron’s death, the variety became even more pronounced, and Byron in the form of memorabilia both acquired a perm, as in this ceramic plaque of 1850, 

Unknown artist, after Thomas Phillips, Staffordshire ware porcelain plaque, c. 1850. Private collection.

and became distinctly bald, as in this Staffordshire figure of the same period.

Unknown artist, Staffordshire ware bust, c.1850. Private collection.

One practical point is that Byron was very fat at some stages of his life and painfully thin at others. A lifelong dieter and possible anorexic, as a teenager Byron was observed by his neighbour Elizabeth Pigot in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, using strenuous exercise such as cricket, and ‘boiling himself’ in the hot bath, in order to reduce his portly frame by more than sixty pounds.[6]

Elizabeth Pigot, ‘The Wonderful History of Lord Byron & His Dog’, 1807. Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.

And, while in 1822 William Edward West portrayed his Lordship looking decidedly chubby, 

William Edward West, Lord Byron, 1822. Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

only a year later, in this sketch by Count Alfred D’Orsay, he appeared painfully thin and weak, with his clothes hanging off him.

Count Alfred D’Orsay, Lord Byron fait à Gènes en 1823. John Murray Collection.

On the one hand, we have his mother’s opinion that the George Sanders portrait of 1807-9 was ‘very like’ Byron at twenty, 

George Sanders, Lord Byron and Robert Rushton, 1807-9. Royal Collection Trust.

and the view of his mistress Teresa Guiccioli that this miniature (taken nearly ten years later) was ‘the most striking likeness I ever saw of him’.[7]

Girolamo Prepiani, Byron, 1819. Biblioteca Classense, Ravenna.

On the other hand, however, this well-known 1813 portrait by Thomas Phillips

Thomas Phillips, Portrait of a Nobleman, c, 1818. Newstead Abbey Collections.

was declared by Byron’s best friend John Cam Hobhouse to have ‘no resemblance’ to him whatsoever.[8]

In 1816 the caricaturist George Cruikshank made Byron resemble Napoleon, with knee-breeches and a pot belly, sailing off into exile as the Emperor had done just a year earlier.

George Cruikshank, Fare Thee Well, 1816. British Museum, London.

But in the same year, George’s brother Robert Cruikshank seems to reflect a first-hand knowledge of Byron’s real clothes, when he shows and exaggerates the style of baggy trousers that Byron actually wore.

Isaac Robert Cruikshank, Lobby Loungers, 1816. Private Collection.

The illustrators of Byron’s works, including Thomas Stothard in 1814, presented Byron’s protagonists such as the Giaour, 

William Finden after Thomas Stothard, ‘The Giaour’, 1814. John Murray Collection.

clothed as a facsimile of Byron himself, as portrayed in his ‘Albanian’ costume painted the same year by Thomas Phillips.

Thomas Phillips, Nobleman in the Dress of an Albanian, 1814, Government Art Collection, Athens.

We chose as the frontispiece for our book this miniature painted in about 1817 by Girolamo Prepiani:

Girolamo Prepiani, Byron, c. 1817. Newstead Abbey Collections.

which – because it was created as an intimate portrait for Byron’s sister by an Italian artist not familiar with other images of Byron — presents him as an ordinary person rather than a celebrity or Romantic poet. It’s also unusual in showing the right side of Byron’s face, which had a smaller eye (the size of a sixpence, while the left one was said to be the size of a shilling – he was known as ‘eighteenpence’ because of this at school at Harrow). Here he looks very real and slightly sheepish, as if he might bite his nails (which he apparently did). 

But whether this is the REAL Byron, any more than the other 100-plus images shown in our book, is very much open to question. To quote Winston Churchill, (speaking of Russia in 1939), perhaps all one can say of Byron when trying to define him, either verbally or visually, is that he was ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. 

Geoffrey Bond is a former Chairman of the Byron Society and author of Lord Byron’s Best Friends. He lives in the Nottinghamshire manor house that was Byron’s home from 1803 to 1808. 

Dr Christine Kenyon Jones is a Research Fellow in the Department of English at King’s College London. Her previous books include Kindred Brutes, and Byron: The Image of the Poet.

[1] Byron’s Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand, 13 vols (London: John Murray, 1973–94).

[2] Dangerous to Show, page 98.

[3] Dangerous to Show, page 98.

[4] Dangerous to Show, page 74.

[5] Dangerous to Show, page 63.

[6] Dangerous to Show, page 24.

[7] Dangerous to Show, pages29 and 92.

[8] Dangerous to Show, page 60.