The National Portrait Gallery’s Insights series uses paintings and sketches from its collections to illustrate themes, in this case the “Romantic Poets” and members of their circle: the artist Haydon; razor-witted critic Hazlitt; courageous all-rounder Leigh Hunt, prepared to face imprisonment for his “seditious libel” of “this fat Adonis”, the Prince Regent, and to publicise the talents of rising stars like Shelley; the astronomer of “supernatural intelligence” Herschel who inspired Coleridge, Byron, Keats and Shelley; the great scientist Davy who linked seamlessly the “two cultures” of art and science, to name a few. It is interesting how, after achieving so much, many of them came to a somewhat sad end.
Most of the images, a full page for each character, are striking in their realism, surprisingly “modern” faces of people we can readily imagine meeting today or passing in the street : Haydon’s vigorous and lifelike head and shoulders’ sketch of Wordsworth; a bluff Sir Walter Scott, churning out pot boilers at this desk to pay off the debts of a bankrupt publishing house; Blake glancing up, pencil in hand, to capture some fresh vision or Amelie Opie staring with direct candour at her husband as he painted her, and therefore of course at us as well,
With his profound knowledge of the period, the biographer Richard Holmes is an excellent choice to provide supporting commentaries. “The dazzling Lord Byron” gets pride of place, “young…brooding, beautiful and damned”. We can be in no doubt about his charisma, combined with understandable, at times absurd vanity, in part perhaps a compensation for his club foot.
Allotted only a page or two for the rest, Richard Holmes manages to make every individual a distinct character, striking the right balance between a brief explanation of each person’s role, and finding a few revealing details or anecdotes. So we grasp Mary Shelley’s intellectual brilliance, precocious writing talent, and concern to create a “normal”, conventional life for her son after the traumatic loss of her other children, and Shelley’s drowning. The country boy John Clare’s sense of insecurity, of being an outsider in London society despite the ready recognition of his talent, is very apparent.
The author takes care not to omit women from the collection, although all too often they have been forgotten, like Felicia Hemans, “the most successful parlour poet of her age” famous for such lines as “The boy stood on the burning deck when all but he had fled”. How many, like the working-class poetess Isabella Lickworth “like the wild flowers on the mountain, unknown, unheeded lie”.
These details can only whet one’s appetite to discover more, and enhance the fascinating pictures for which they provide a context.