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Was this why Byron was mad, bad and dangerous to know?

01 June 2009Written by ATG Reporter

TURN the leaves of ‘A sketchbook belonging to Lady Julia Conyers...’ and you will find some 80 drawings and watercolours by Lady Julia and her society friends that are for the most part unexceptional and predictable.

There are landscape and nautical views, drawings of the Colosseum and other Roman ruins, a Rubens copy, silhouettes and a number of canine portraits, as well as several scenes featuring children.

But then you come across the startling contributions of the most famous of the amateur artists whose work found its way into Lady Julia's sketchbook - those of Lady Caroline Lamb (1785-1829).

A portrait of her then dashing young husband, William, who as Viscount Melbourne was to become the young Queen Victoria's first prime minister and advisor, seems innocuous enough, as do two small vignettes. A putto first gathers a winged heart and roses, but in a sequel the winged heart has flown off, leaving the roses to wither.

These may reflect on lost love or hope, but what are we to make of the two most dramatic of Lady Caroline's pictures?

The largest of them shows a partly clothed woman lying on a bed, her breast speared by an arrow held by a grinning, red-faced cupid whose hand is guided by a skeleton which seems also to admonish her with a raised bony finger.

The second shows a woman on a rocky shore, her arms draped tenderly around two children as a third struggles in the waves beside them. The drowning child lifts up its arms to a dark sky from which strange, and in one case quite devilish, faces emerge.

Are these simply Lady Caroline's attempt to visualise some gothic horror story that she had read or conceived - she was after all a minor novelist herself, the first and most famous of whose tales was Glencarvon of 1816, in which Byron and other real-life characters were disguised in fiction. Or are these pictures more psychologically revealing, and do they relate to events in her own life?

As a child Caroline was said to be so highly strung that doctors warned her parents it would be dangerous to her nervous system to teach her anything. By turns, impulsive, vivacious, eccentric and neurotic, Lady Caroline Lamb may be seen as a foolish or tragic figure, but her behaviour eventually brought an end to her marriage and there must have been many occasions in which her mental state was, to say the least, troubled.

Lady Caroline Lamb's greatest claim to fame, of course, is the infatuation she conceived for Lord Byron - whom she famously described as mad, bad and dangerous to know. As one of my biographical dictionaries so succinctly puts it, "he discarded her in 1813 and she spent the rest of her life in a fragile and turbulent emotional state".

Are these pictures related in any way to her Byronic tragedy, or just harmless fancies?

Twenty years ago, the battered Lady Conyers sketchbook, which contains works dating from the 1770s through to 1830, was sold for £2000 or so at Sotheby's, but on May 6 last it made a much higher than expected $46,000 (£30,665) at Bloomsbury New York. It was part of the Paula Peyraud collection, focusing on women writers in Georgian England, reported in the Antiquarian Books section of this weeks ATG printed newspaper.

There were just a few Byron lots in the Peyraud collection including one linked to another of those he disappointed in love.

A portrait profile of the poet, aged 18, is mounted on an album page inscribed W.S. Leacroft Esq. c.1806-07. Southall and relates to a family he met while living at Southwell with his mother.

Byron took such an interest in Julia Leacroft that her family believed he intended to marry her, but when his true intentions were revealed he was almost dragged into a duel with her brother, Captain John Leacroft who is thought to have been the artist responsible for this profile. It sold at $7000 (£4665).

By Ian McKay

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