Dead Poets in Stereo

Bruce Graver

One of the curious features of the Victorian vogue for literary tourism was an obsession with poets’ graves, especially the graves of the freshly dead bards of the Romantic era.  Samantha Matthews has traced the beginnings of this sometimes ghoulish obsession in her book, Poetical Remains—describing in excruciating detail the indignities suffered by the remains of Robert Burns when his body was removed from its simple grave and reinterred in an elaborate Ayrshire monument—and writers on literary tourism, notably Nicola Watson and more recently Saeko Yoshikawa, have given accounts of visits to the gravesites of Wordsworth and Scott, which became standard stops for the holiday travelers.[1] My essay will supplement their work by considering the stereo photography of poets’ graves: the mass-market 3d images that were sold by the thousands and distributed internationally by companies like the London Stereoscopic Company. These stereographs constitute an iconography of the Romantic poets that tells us much about the Victorian attitudes towards them, and about the graves themselves, as they were transformed into pilgrimage sites, places where adoring admirers would travel, and where not a few picked them over for souvenirs and relics.

But first it is worth noting which graves were not extensively photographed. With one exception, the graves of women poets were neglected by photographers, and that exception is Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose elaborate tomb in the English Cemetery in Florence, commissioned by her husband, is still a tourist attraction (Figure 1). Nor were the graves of the second generation of Romantic poets extensively stereographed: Byron’s not at all, at least by English photographers, although the tomb of his dog Boatswain at Newstead Abbey was an occasional subject (Figure 2); and in spite of their location in tourist-friendly Rome, the graves of Keats and Shelley seem to have been rarely photographed—although the monument that Percy Florence commissioned for his mother, a bizarre rendition of the pietà, with Mary as Mary and Percy as Christ, did attract a few curious lenses (Figure 3). Nor was Coleridge’s monument at Old Highgate Chapel photographed, although the new church, built in 1832, occasionally appeared without being identified as the site of his burial (Figure 4). But for the graves of Scott, Southey, and Wordsworth there is an ample stereographic record.

Almost from the moment of his death, Sir Walter Scott’s home at Abbotsford and his grave, a few miles down the Tweed at Dryburgh Abbey, entertained flocks of tourists wishing to pay homage to the Wizard of the North. For a small fee, one could stroll down the lane at Abbotsford, walk through the rooms where he displayed his collections of antiquities, armaments, and books, peruse the empty leather armchair where he wrote his novels, and even view the room where he died, and contemplate his bronze deathmask. Dryburgh, already landscaped as a picturesque park for the Earl of Buchan, became a kind of secular shrine where, through an iron grate, one could view, in the ruins of the Lady aisle of the abbey church, the tomb of Scott and his wife, and next to them their daughter Anne and her husband, Lockhart. As William Howitt wrote in 1864,

Taken in connection with the fine ruins, and the finer natural scenery around,
no spot can be supposed more suitable for the resting-place of the remains of the
great minstrel and romancer, who so delighted in the natural, historic, and legendary
charms of the neighbourhood, and who added still greater ones to them himself.[2]

Howitt’s comment appears in Ruined Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain and Ireland, one of the pioneering photo-illustrated volumes published in the 1860s by A. W. Bennett. The photographs for the volume were supplied by prominent British photographers who had primarily made their reputations from twin-image stereographs, meant to be viewed in simulated three dimensions in a stereoscope: these photographers included G. W. Wilson, Thomas Ogle, Francis Bedford, and W. Russell Sedgfield, among others. Wilson, who had made his reputation as the official photographer of Balmoral Castle when it was being rebuilt by the royal family, and whose Aberdeen photo-processing facility was the most sophisticated in Britain, was the premiere photographer of Scottish landscape scenery, and devoted nearly half his output to sites associated with Sir Walter Scott.[3] From his stock of stereo photographs, you could recreate in your drawing room—especially if you owned a multi-slide Beckers stereoscope (Figure 5)—a virtual tour of Abbotsford, approaching it from the banks of the Tweed or from the main road, and moving room-by-room through the house (Figures 6 and 7), beginning at the entry hall (Figure 8) and ending in the dining room, where the stricken Scott spent his final days (Figure 9).  The stereoscope magnifies the images, giving a sense of Abbotsford’s vast size, and in simulated 3d, the weaponry of the entry hall and armaments room jumps out at us, almost poking us in the eye. The stereographs, that is, give a visceral sense of the clutter of artifacts scattered everywhere in the house. And strangest of all, through Wilson’s lens Scott has become an artifact in his own collection, whether it be the Raeburn portrait (with dog) in the drawing room (Figure 10), or the Chantrey bust in its alcove in the Library (Figures 11 and 12), or, most disturbing of all, the death mask, once on display in the dining room where it must have been molded, but now tastefully relocated in a small Abbotsford “museum.” (Figure 13)

Wilson’s stereographs of Dryburgh are just as comprehensive, allowing the viewer to explore, through stereoscopic lenses, the abbey and its environs, with a special focus on Scott’s tomb. One of Wilson’s favorite techniques is to use a stone archway to frame a distant ruin, as in this view of the St. Catherine’s Wheel window (Figure14); he would follow that up with a close-up view, giving the viewer the illusion of movement through space (Figure 15). He uses this technique very deliberately in his several views of Scott’s tomb. Here, for instance, he depicts the usual approach to the tomb, as one proceeds from the entrance to the abbey grounds (Figure 16). In the stereoscope, virtual space opens up between the archway and the tomb, where a paved pathway directs our steps; if we step through the arch, we can follow the path towards the tomb, and rest before it on a wooden bench, as Wilson himself does in this stereograph (Figure 17). Or we can enter the area through an archway in the south crossing of the church, and approach the tomb from a different direction (Figure 18). In Figure 19, we see Wilson himself once again, in a posture of worship, the photograph framed by a tree on the right and a fragment of ruin on the left—and the tomb itself slightly overexposed and seeming to glow with an almost ethereal light.  This is Wilson’s solemn tribute to Scotland’s last minstrel.

The houses and graves of Southey and Wordsworth were also regularly photographed, but the imagery of the two poets laureate was very different from that associated with Scott.  Greta Hall, for instance, though older than Abbotsford, had a decidedly modern look to it, which the photographers liked to emphasize by focusing on the rounded sections of its outer wall, as in this hand-colored stereograph, taken by Thomas Ogle about 1859 (Figure 20). Nor was a virtual tour possible: Southey’s home, then as now, was a private residence not open to casual tourists, nor did the Southey family maintain the house after his death, keeping intact and in one place his furniture and library. Crosthwaite Church, where Southey is buried, was occasionally photographed (Figure 21), as was his grave. In Figure 22, taken by an anonymous photographer about 1865, the proximity of his grave to the tilled fields outside Keswick is emphasized, and the dim outlines of the mountains circling Derwentwater—to which his stone tablet directs us—are reminders of the picturesque beauty he contemplated daily through the large window in his study, a view reproduced in Cuthbert Southey’s biography of his father. But the image of Southey that attracted photographers the most was inside the church: the white marble sarcophagus in the south aisle of the church, with its sculpted image of the dead Southey recumbent upon it, inscribed with verses written for the occasion by William Wordsworth.  Normally, the monument was photographed from the side, as in this stereograph by Thomas Ogle (Figure 23). But the Manchester photographer Helmut Petschler mounted his camera above the monument, to give a fuller sense of its three-dimensionality (Figure 24), and perhaps most impressive of all, Carlyle of Grasmere used what appears to be natural lighting and a longer exposure to show both the monument and the nave of the church, in a photographic approximation to chiaroscuro (Figure 25).  In these stereographs, Southey is transformed into something like a saint or noble patron of the church, or perhaps an unordained bishop, in imagery that is both splendid and creepy at one and the same time.

The stereographic imagery of Wordsworth is more extensive and more restrained. Rydal Mount was regularly photographed straight on, the eye of the camera looking up the steps from the gardens that Wordsworth himself designed, the house framed by rhododendron on the left and right, and partially obscured by trees and ivy. Photographers captioned it as the place “where Wordsworth died,” as in Figure 26, by Alfred Pettitt of Keswick, or, more elaborately, as “the residence of the late William Wordsworth, poet laureate.” The contrast with the overstated grandeur of Abbotsford is obvious: it is the comfortable home of a country gentleman rather than a modified castle, a place where children can meet the gardener, and Lake District walkers, rucksacks on back, can stop for a rest—as in Figure 27, by Thomas Ogle. Notably absent from the stereographic record is Dove Cottage. Until the 1890s, when the Dove Cottage Trust was founded and the cottage was opened to tourists, it was almost never photographed, the single known exception being a stereograph from the 1860s, of which only one known copy survives.[4]  For the Victorians, Rydal Mount was Wordsworth’s home and the center of his life, the fitting image of a successful poet laureate.

St. Oswald’s in Grasmere, where Wordsworth was buried, was also extensively stereographed, and, like Rydal Mount, the imagery and camera angles were remarkably consistent. Photographers positioned their cameras along the banks of the river Rothay, east of the church and upriver from church bridge, with the hawthorn trees that shade the Wordsworth grave plot framing the picture on the right (Figure 28). These stereographs were regularly captioned “Grasmere Church,” not St. Oswald’s, and it was usually identified as “the burial place of Wordsworth and Hartley Coleridge.” Hartley’s inclusion here is something I will return to in a moment. But first I want to consider the ways in which Wordsworth’s grave itself was photographed. The earliest example I have seen, taken by an anonymous photographer in the mid-1850s, shows an unkempt, untended grave plot, with a gentleman standing behind the stone who resembles the poet enough to be one of his sons (Figure 29). Thomas Ogle’s stereo, taken about the same time, shows an even more untidy grave plot, overgrown with grass and wildflowers, and one can almost understand Nathaniel Hawthorne’s urge to pick a flower or clump of grass from it, and fantasize about it springing directly from the poet himself (Figure 30).[5] But the contrast between the country church and the simple slate stone and the picturesque grandeur of Scott’s grave at Dryburgh Abbey couldn’t be plainer, nor does the Wordsworth grave exhibit the excesses of the Southey monument. By his own request, Wordsworth’s grave is indistinguishable from the others in the churchyard; it is a sign of his rejection of needless pomp and show.

Later stereographs of the gravesite, however, show an increasing awareness that, despite Wordsworth’s wishes, his burial plot had become a shrine for literary pilgrims. By the early 1860s, a tall new stone had appeared immediately to the left of the Wordsworth plot, and on it are inscribed the birth and death dates of Sarah Hutchinson, who is buried beneath it, as well as the same information for William, Mary, and Dorothy Wordsworth, the latter of whom is buried immediately to the left of the new stone (Figure 31). As a grave marker, the stone is entirely superfluous. It serves instead as a kind of monumental tour guide. At the same time, we can see that the plot itself is being better tended: the grass has been carefully trimmed, and loops of iron have been placed as a barrier around the graves, to keep people from walking on them and defacing the headstones, and perhaps to discourage them from tearing up bits of turf as souvenirs. By the 1870s, even this protection was deemed insufficient: a wrought iron fence was erected to replace the iron loops, and the grave plots assumed the formal appearance that they still have today (Figure 32). A pair of Petschler stereographs, from the mid-1860s, one taken in summer and the other in winter, tell the story of the churchyard’s transformation: placed on the banks of the Rothay, near the church door, the camera looks back to the hawthorns that shadow the Wordsworths’ graves, and in the winter scene, you can make out the headstones themselves in the center of the picture (Figures 33 and 34). Both stereographs are labeled “Poet’s Corner.”  St. Oswald’s may be nothing like Westminster Abbey, but the caption here signals that, to the Lake District tourist, a visit to this country churchyard is the rural counterpart to the urban splendor of England’s national shrine.

But let me return to Hartley Coleridge. Several of the stereographs of the Wordsworth graves, particularly those from the 1850s, are captioned “the graves of Wordsworth and Hartley Coleridge.” And, as it turns out, Hartley’s grave was almost as frequently stereographed as Wordsworth’s. Hartley died penniless in 1849, and his funeral, churchyard plot, and gravestone were paid for by the Wordsworth family. They placed his grave just behind their own plot, and purchased a more elaborate marker than what they chose for themselves, as we can see in Figure 35, a stereograph by Helmut Petschler. Rather than a flat sheet of slate engraved with simple block letters, Hartley’s monument is carved stone, with Gothic-style lettering, and an epitaph in relief that encircles the cross at the top. Petschler’s stereograph includes just the headstone, but there seems to have been a tradition of photographing young children near Hartley’s grave.  Figure 36, taken by the Grasmere schoolmaster and photographer William Baldry, shows a young child, no more than 5 or 6 years old, standing next to the grave, a bouquet of flowers in her hand. Her eyes are cast down, contemplating the mound of turf before her, and we can see how worn the paths through churchyard are, even in the mid-1850s when this was taken: she is standing on bare dirt. Is she about to place her bouquet on Hartley’s grave? Is this a tribute to a man frozen in perpetual childhood by poems like “Christabel” and “To H.C.,” and by the well-known Wilkie portrait? More disturbing are Alfred Pettitt’s stereos of the same spot (Figure 37).  Here Hartley’s grave is strewn with floral bouquets, and a small child is stretched out upon it, head resting in hand, and apparently asleep. His posture recalls the postmortem photographs of children that were so popular in the Victorian era, and seems to suggest that Hartley himself is somehow a kind of a dead child, or, even more disturbing, a figure to whom children are strangely drawn and bewitched into catatonia. In any case, Wordsworth is not the only poet in this “Poet’s Corner,” and it is worthwhile remembering that, to the local folk whom Canon Rawnsley interviewed in the 1870s, Hartley and his poetry were held in higher regard.[6]

I’d like to close by looking at what is perhaps the most famous Victorian photographic image of Wordsworth’s grave, the photograph taken by Thomas Ogle and published in A.W. Bennett’s photographically-illustrated selection of Wordsworth’s poetry, Our English Lakes, Mountains, and Waterfalls, as seen by Wordsworth, a volume published in 1864 (Figure 38).  Ogle took all of his photographs for Bennett with a stereo camera, and issued them himself as unsigned stereographs, several of which are in my collection. Using a newly-improved lens, Ogle gives us a close-up of the headstone, in a photograph so clear and detailed that we can literally count the blades of grass (and there are none too many: the loops of iron may have kept visitors from walking on the graves, but had obviously not kept them from plucking up vegetative souvenirs). In the background lie the open fields, stretching to the vicarage where the Wordsworths once lived, and in the distance one can just make out “the tall steep of Silver How.” It is the last photograph in Bennett’s book, used to illustrate the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” the poet’s life and works coming together in a final, single photographic image.

[1] Matthews, Poetical Remains (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004); Watson, The Literary Tourist (Houndmill: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Yoshikawa, William Wordsworth and the Invention of Tourism (London: Ashgate, 2014).

[2] William Howitt, Ruined Abbeys and Castles, in Great Britain and Ireland. Second Series, (London: Alfred W. Bennett, 1864), 184.

[3] The best account of Wilson’s achievement is Roger Taylor’s George Washington Wilson, Artist & Photographer (1823-93) (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1981).

[4] This stereograph is in the collection of the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere.

[5] Samantha Matthews, “Wordsworth’s Mortal Remains,” The Wordsworth Circle 34, no. 1 (Winter, 2003): 35-39.

[6] Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, “Reminiscences of Wordsworth among the Peasantry of Westmoreland,” Transactions of the Wordsworth Society 6 (1884), 172-73. According to one local, Wordsworth “had got most of his poetry out of Hartley.”