More about Harold, 2016
When the romantic poem ‘Childe Harold’ was published in 1812 George Gordon, Lord Byron became famous overnight. He was probably the first person to be attributed the label ‘superstar’. ‘Childe Harold’ is the story of a fictional English knight who travels to Europe to find adventure.
‘Then loathed he in his native land to dwell,
Which seemed to him more lone than eremite’s sad cell.’
Harold arrives in Portugal and travels on to Spain where the battle with Napoleon’s French army has been raging. He describes Napoleon as a vulture leading ‘Gaul’s locust host’. Byron dedicates stanza LIV to the heroism of the Spanish women, especially Agustina of Aragon who fought against Napoleon’s Grande Armée. He witnesses a bullfight then journeys to France where he visits the tomb of the philosopher Rousseau.
Harold wanders through Armenia, where he describes the tranquillity of the shepherds tending their sheep and the beauty of the Moorish architecture. In Greece, Byron is able to drawn upon his prodigious knowledge of the Classics, and it was here that he took up the cause of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire - the cause that would later take his life. Travelling on to Italy, Harold visits the tomb of Petrarch and he makes much of the beautiful cities of Rome and Venice.
Byron died in Messolonghi (then held by the Ottoman Empire) in 1824 at the age of 36.
Monkeys both real and imagined had a special place in the fashionable salons of Europe and particularly those of the French Rococo where performing monkeys decorated entire rooms known as Singerie. This monkey, Harold is a knight and like all fictional knights he is both endearing and amusing.
The story of Childe Harold’s progress is illustrated on Harold’s back in the guise of a French toile painted in the traditional raspberry colour. Harold leaves his comfortable life in England by boat while his dog whines from the shore. He encounters the devastation of Napoleon’s army in Spain that is represented in the form of the wolf and the sheep, the vulture and the locust. The tombs of Rousseau and Petrarch are painted on the monkey’s thighs. Growing beneath the toile and wrapping itself around Harold’s tail is the grip of poison ivy.
On his front a pear arbour grows up his legs revealing another raspberry toile of Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘The Wanderer’ with putti and doves in the heavens. Byron’s impending death is looming.
'And Mammon wins his way where seraphs might despair’
On his right arm is a tattoo of Cupid and Psyche similar to that on the arm of our modern sporting superstar. On his left arm grows a pomegranate styled on a 19th century wallpaper pattern by William Morris. Harold wears an 18th century hand embroidered smoking cap drawing us back into the salon where he sits on his satin cushion.
- Robin Best