Portrait of the Regency: A Nightmare

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) was a Swiss painter unwelcome in his native country due to some political trouble. He eventually settled in England, where he became a stalwart at the Royal Academy and a master of Romantic painting.

In his spare time, he translated Homer for Cowper and Lavater’s work on physiognomy for England. He later declared, after Mrs. Fuseli had to bar his studio against an infatuated Mary Wollstonecraft:

“I hate clever women. They are only troublesome.”

Henry Fuseli by Northcote

Henry Fuseli by Northcote

Critics called his art, “Rubens in motion.” His figures writhe with violence, his incredible beasts glare fantastically. Regency era sensibilities were most particularly challenged by his painting, “The Nightmare.”

Naturally, Sir Thomas Lawrence couldn’t wait to tell Miss Croft just how timid a fellow this painter of supernatural visions really was.

Fuseli had been invited to spend an evening at a wealthy patron’s country house. After dinner, as the ladies retired to the drawing room, the artist got up from the table and left as well. The gentlemen wondered why the guest of honor had abandoned them but consoled themselves with the notion that foreigners disliked sitting after dinner.

When the ladies returned, without Fuseli, the host demanded of his lady where she’d put him. Remonstrances were exchanged while someone was dispatched to the artist’s room in the event he’d gone there to be sick.

He wasn’t there.

As is often the case with these country house mysteries, a breakthrough came by means of an unexpected observation from “below-stairs.” In this case, it was the lowly footman who found himself the subject of uncomfortable scrutiny when he admitted having directed Fuseli to the garden temple, a noted feature of the estate’s grounds, despite the gathering darkness.

The servant had tried to press upon him certain items for protection:

“What you bring that great big stick for?” asked Mr. Fuseli in his broken English.

“Why, Sir, our house dog is let loose after dark, and as he is rather fierce, you’d better take the stick.”

— — Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter-Bag, ed. by George Somes Layard, with recollections by Miss Elizabeth Croft (1906)

Fuseli refused to take either lantern or cudgel, and dismissed the footman upon arriving at the garden fixture. When his hosts at last discovered him, he was still inside, cowering in a state of considerable disorder.

It seems he’d heard loud sniffing at the door soon after he’d been left at the temple, which turned into blood-curdling snarls and growling. Unable and unwilling to leave the temple, and so far removed from the house no one could hear his cries, Fuseli became terrified at the prospect of spending the night in the pagan temple, at the mercy of a demonic dog.

The Nightmare, by Fuseli

The Nightmare, by Fuseli

It was an anecdote Miss Croft declared:

“I am almost ashamed to repeat.”

Thank goodness for lack of scruples.

 

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Cowper: Fanny Price

Fanny, who was sitting on the other side of Edmund, exactly opposite Miss Crawford, and who had been attentively listening, now looked at him and said in a low voice– O Brother, where Art thou

“Cut down an avenue? What a pity! Does that not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’ ”

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Fanny Price, like Austen, was very fond of William Cowper, a poet of the eighteenth century. He was not a Romantic poet, but his brooding, melancholy, emotional writing had great influence over poets of the Regency, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Cowper suffered bouts of insanity and deep depression–he wrote various hymns preserved today in the Sacred Harp (think O Brother, Where Art Thou?) but it was his poetry, encouraged by various women in his life, that gave him a much-needed outlet for his despair.

In Nature he sought solace:

Who loves a garden loves a greenhouse too.
Unconscious of a less propitious clime,
There blooms exotic beauty, warm and snug,
While the winds whistle and the snows descend.Crazy Kate from Cowper's "The Task" by Fussli - the depths of despair
The spiry myrtle with unwithering leaf
Shines there, and flourishes.

The Task, Book III, The Garden

But humanity, like nature, eventually dies:

I was a stricken deer, that left the herd
Long since: with many an arrow deep infix’d
My panting side was charged, when I withdrew,
To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.

What does it mean to have a Regency-era character who adores Cowper? He might be depressed and perhaps thinking of his own death. She might look upon the trees in the park,  and find comfort from the stress of every day living, as Fanny does in Mansfield Park:

“Here’s harmony! Here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe. Here’s what may tranquilize every care, and lift the heart to rapture!”