Poet for Our Time by Miranda Seymour

Miranda Seymour

Poet for Our Time

 

On 17 April, the British Library is hosting a talk. Antonia Fraser and I will be having a ‘fireside chat’ about the subject of her latest book, Lady Caroline Lamb: A Free Spirit. If, that is, we can succeed in keeping Lord Byron at bay. April being the month of the bicentenary of Byron’s death, Lamb’s celebrated lover will be doing his utmost to hijack proceedings. History suggests that he may well triumph.

Fiona MacCarthy (in my view, Byron’s best biographer) wasn’t wrong when she called him ‘a public exhibitionist’. Nobody – not even Beyoncé, currently rediscovering her Texan roots in her new incarnation as a country and western singer – has surpassed Byron’s savvy use of image.

Part of the trick lay in the fact that Byron and his publisher never missed a chance to marry the strikingly handsome poet’s image to Byron’s work. Was it Byron’s idea, or was it John Murray’s, that Thomas Phillips, a close friend of the canny Scottish publisher, should produce, almost simultaneously, two carefully contrasted paintings of London’s new superstar? One (head and shoulders only) presented a moody, bare-necked thinker. Byron, always happy to show off his creamy throat, asked Phillips to render his nose more Roman and less retroussé. In 1814, that open-shirted portrait went on display at the Royal Academy alongside Phillips’s second, more flamboyant depiction of the author. Grandly titled Portrait of a Nobleman in the Dress of an Albanian, it was snapped up by the proud mother of Byron’s future wife and put on show in her country home. Murray bought the other work and gave it pride of place directly above the fireplace in his Albemarle Street drawing room. A copy hangs there still.

And Caroline? Phillips painted the future Lord Melbourne’s slender wife as a boyish page in the act of presenting a luscious bowl of fruits. He placed this daringly suggestive portrait between the two images of Byron in his studio, which was regularly visited by the London ‘ton’ (the posh set

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