This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.
The British Romantic poet Lord Byron (1788-1824) followed up his successful Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) with a series of popular Oriental Tales, inspired in part by his early adventures in the Levant. He composed and revised the third of these tales, The Corsair (1814), in just one month, and the first edition sold an unprecedented 10,000 copies on its day of publication. Already a lion in London literary circles, Byron was out-of-town when his jubilant publisher John Murray wrote, “I really think that I may venture to congratulate your Lordship upon the Publication of a Poem wch has set up your fame beyond all assailment – You have no notion of the sensation which it has occasioned and my only regret that you were not present to witness it.” Popular demand called for eight further editions in quick succession, bringing the total circulation of The Corsair to 25,000 copies through 1815.
The Corsair reached an even wider audience through several contemporary melodramatic adaptations, in prose or written for the stage. One such prose adaptation was Conrad and Medora; or, The Pirate’s Isle (ca. 1814), a chapbook printed and sold by Dean and Munday, a London firm that specialized in cheap editions of popular literature intended to reach the masses. The edition featured a crudely hand-colored frontispiece illustrating the dramatic moment when the pirate Conrad discovers “the lifeless body of his beloved Medora” after his long absence:
He snatch’d the lamp – its light will answer all –
It quits his grasp, expiring in the fall.
In 1819 Murray was contemplating his own illustrated edition of Byron’s works. He commissioned the painter and book illustrator Richard Westall (1765-1836) to create a new suite of images to accompany several poems, including The Corsair. (Six years earlier, Westall had captured the world-weary poet at the height of his fame in an oil portrait now held by the National Portrait Gallery.) When Byron in Italy received a set of Westall’s steel-engraved illustrations, he signaled his approval in a letter to Murray: “the brush has beat the poetry.”
For Open House 75, I selected an illuminated 1826 edition of The Corsair, bound in black velvet and printed on vellum in an edition of no more than two or three copies by the Societá Tipografica dei Classici Italiani in Milan. The illuminator, Giambattista Gigola (1769-1841), received his artistic training in France and is best known for exquisite miniatures achieved in a neo-classical style. For The Corsair, he produced a brilliant frontispiece after Westall’s 1813 portrait of Byron and nine full-page illuminations heightened in gold leaf to accompany the text, each within an intricate border; the artist also provided six ornate headpieces and three tailpieces.
I first came upon this magnificent example of “European Britannica” (translations of English literature and books about England published on the continent) in the bequest of Philip Hofer, the founding curator of the library’s Printing and Graphic Arts Department. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I had the privilege of cataloging a substantial part of the Hofer bequest under the direction of my colleague Dennis Marnon. As an erstwhile Byron collector, I find it somewhat paradoxical that this deluxe Milanese edition of The Corsair and the more homely Conrad and Medora chapbook are today equally unobtainable, each surviving in only a few copies. The triptych of images in this post is intended to suggest a broader range of visual resources available at Houghton Library to those interested in Romantic era book illustration.
Thanks to Peter X. Accardo, Programs Coordinator, for contributing this post.