First steps on the journey – 1842

It seems like an age hence that I was using up spare leave from the Day Job to swan around Georgian England. April, in fact, and the weather was balmy – one day we had rain, and when I was in London it was sunny.Dodwell & Pomardi party on the Peleponnese. No, I'm just making this up...

The museum visits – Belzoni’s sketches of Seti I’s tomb, the drawings of Dodwell and Pomardi – are still fresh in my mind. I can picture the roads they walked on. I see their own depictions of their clothing. Prosperous men, making a slash in the world’s perception.

Of the houses from that time, I saw the Georgian House in Bristol, and was reminded of the tenement flats of Turin and Glasgow, large rooms with tiny fireplaces and high ceilings.

Ornate plasterwork on the cornices. Chinese or Japanese fabrics on screens, on lacquerwork furniture, on fine bone china.

Silk, embroidered, the work of tiny hands, a nation’s wealth in fabric sheer against lined paper walls and painted wooden balustrades.

Homes built on slavery and trade of other sorts.

Small piano-type instruments, keys of ivory not yet scarce; books the size of a card-table spread open at hand-painted birds of paradise from the Indies. Animal products from far-off lands where the people are different from us.

Wigs to be powdered, pearls to be worn by the maid before the lady of the house entertains.

Pero.

The wealth of merchants and the asceticism of Methodists, the freshness of plantation sugar and the new industrial works roaring beside canals dug by Irishmen on government subsidy through newly-enclosed land.

Books, the rare stories treasured, the poetry mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know.

The loss of the New World still stinging.

Since then, I’ve read a little of the period’s surviving literature – Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield – and boned up on history. I’ve developed a feel for the society on the cusp of a new age: leaving behind the excesses of the Georgian period and setting forth on the fecund part of Victoria’s reign. A transition from one form of the British Empire to another. A rise in mercantile power, in global reach, in ebullient confidence.

A formative part of the national psyche, in fact.

I’ve explored modern perceptions of the period too, between the pages of Queen Victoria’s Book Of Spells and Mysteries Of The Diogenes Club, and social history such as the Chartists, to bolster my earlier reading of Robert Louis Stevenson and The Coral Island and The Water Babies and a bundle of other books that all squidge together in the memory. I know I’ve missed out a lot. That will come, as it’s needed.

In doing so, I’ve built up a picture – a landscape not unlike those sketched by Dodwell and Pomardi. A schema, similar to that Belzoni made of the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs for touring Europe, raising funds for his next expedition.

I’ve created a background against which a story can take place.

This is the world of the young Louis Beauregard.

And he has just begun to stride across it, heading for his destiny.

Giovanni Belzoni Gets A New Assistant

A trip to the British Museum this week brought an unexpected resource to  my attention for my current work-in-plan, Project AR: the travel drawings of Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi. The work in progress is a prequel to my novel, The Last Rhinemaiden, and is about the life of that story’s hero, Louis Beauregard, as a younger man.

Edward Dodwell, Simone Pomardi, Panorama from the top of the Mousaion Hill, Athens. Watercolour, 1805. From the British Museum website.

In my short story, All Roads Lead To The River, Louis visits the pyramids at Giza in the company of two English explorers. He’s described as having “caroused around the Greek islands in the company of playboys and poets”, until he arrives with Smyth & Petherick in Libya as their draftsman.

Dodwell and Pomardi were draftsmen.

Gold mine.

All their work took place twenty years or so before Louis fictionally arrives there. The landscape hadn’t changed much in that time, although it did in the ensuing twenty years as the Greeks, having won their War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire, proceeded to remove all trace of the overseers.

I originally went to see the exhibition of Ice Age Art (how could I not? I majored in prehistory at university; Ice Ages and their effects on northern Europe play a major part in the story of The Last Rhinemaiden and its offshoots). While I waited for my ticket time to come around, I took a wander.

It’s the British Museum – there’s plenty of things to see. For once I didn’t go to see to Pete Marsh. I avoided the Egyptian gallery too, and the Elgin Marbles (although I began to wish I’d zipped past them just the once after this…)

Serendipity, call it what you will, but I entered the exhibition entitled “In Search of Classical Greece”. I hadn’t heard of either of the two gents whose drawings formed the mainstay of the exhibits, but as I went around I learned a lot more about them and the circles they moved in.

The drawings of the Greek landscape were technically perfect, but lots more interesting snippets popped out of the texts. Names to look up, topographical details, local people in costume, travellers in English period costume. I was scribbling notes like a wild thing. Byron; Shelley; the aforementioned Lord Elgin. A touch of The Stress Of Her Regard (Tim Powers) in the air, perhaps, of the British Museum on a sunny afternoon.

Then yesterday, in a planned day of exploration for more Project AR groundwork, I took a trip to Bristol and wandered around their Georgian House Museum – fascinating – before going up the steep hill of  Park Street to the university area and the lovely, compact but jam-packed City Museum & Art Gallery for a lunchtime talk.

On the drawings of the tomb of Seti I by Giovanni Belzoni.

Wow.

In addition to a peek at some Belzoni artefacts – a chunk of plaster chipped from the wall of the tomb that Belzoni had marked with his name, for example – the talk also mentioned how the paintings were produced: the techniques used, the inks, the paper, the protocols for painting the scenery. I already knew some of the original Egyptian protocols, the dimensions and such like, but it was interesting to see that the copyists used much the same ideas.

And when he’d finished despoiling the tombs he excavated, what did Belzoni do with the goodies?

Belzoni assistant

Belzoni toured with his discoveries. This in the collections of Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery.

He shipped them off to Europe and toured the provinces at their expense.

Belzoni produced the drawings as part of a touring exhibition, and they formed a mock-up that people could wander around in. If I hadn’t been to the Dodwell & Pomardi exhibition the day before, I wouldn’t have known how common that was at the time, to the extent that special rotundas were built in the 1790s-1800s so people could go into a landscape and experience it in 360 degrees – the original Imax.

The Museum staff handed round a handbill of the exhibition of two mummies, an excellent example of the over-wordy printer-going-bananas-with-his-art. And there was a guidebook – a genuine one, from the period, with a map of Egypt that folded out, and about 8 pages of tight typescript explaining the excavation and the exhibition.

Wow. Again.

As a historian, even Belzoni’s artefacts are cool. I have handled a 180-year-old booklet produced for Giovanni Belzoni’s exhibition. Cool.

And in addition to being cool, both exhibitions gave me a nice set of reference points for Project AR and how Louis Beauregard would actually do all that carousing around the Grand Tour with poets and playboys.

The exhibitions are totally free. The talk was totally free. The British Museum, and Bristol City Museum, are getting a big acknowledgement in the front of the finished novel.

But first, I have to write the blasted thing…