Never judge a book by its cover. Or indeed by its title. The Letters of John B.S. Morritt of Rokeby does not cause the heart to beat noticeably faster, and the cover picture (the frontispiece of the book) shows an amiable old buffer in a rather odd outfit. But pay attention to the subtitle: Descriptive of Journeys in Europe and Asia Minor in the Years 1794–1796. Strange dates for an Englishman to be wandering across Europe?
John Morritt was born in 1771, and educated (like Him Indoors) at Manchester Grammar School. He completed his education at St John’s College, Cambridge, graduating B.A. in 1794 at the (for the time) remarkably late age of 23: the ODNB enigmatically refers to his having spent ‘an interlude in Paris in 1789’…
He had inherited the estate of Rokeby Park from his father in 1791, and as a young gentleman of independent means, he did what had been customary until the outbreak of the French Revolution – he set off on the Grand Tour. France had declared war on Britain in February 1793, so the traditional route across France to Italy was closed to travellers, but in any case Morritt had grander plans for his tour: he wanted to explore the ancient sites of Greece and Asia Minor rather than the more familiar remains of the Roman empire.
He was very much keener on Greece and its culture than he was on the Romans, whose post-Republican doings he could scarcely tolerate, and though he vigorously denied the label of ‘democrat’, his political views were considerably more liberal than might have been expected, given his class and education. However, in one respect he conformed to type, having stereotypical views of all foreigners as dirty, lazy, cowardly, etc., and all Catholics as foolish, credulous dupes – though exceptions were frequently made for particular individuals he encountered. Like his friend Sir William Gell, he thought it unlikely that, even if the Greeks were to cast off the Ottoman yoke, they would be able to govern themselves.
Morritt set out in February 1794 and returned in July 1796. His tutor, or ‘bear-leader’, was Dr Robert Stockdale, though he didn’t get the chance to do much leading, and is mostly noticeable for being ill. At various times the pair fell in with other friends, notably two brothers with the surnames Bootle and Wilbraham (one had changed his name, as so frequently in the period, to secure an inheritance, but later changed it back). This account of his journey is furnished by letters he sent home to his mother, his Aunt Frances and his sister Anne. They do not seem to have been intended for a wider audience, and were not published until 1914, by G.E. Marindin, who had also worked on later editions of Sir William Smith’s famous dictionaries of Greek and Roman culture. Marindin gives very few notes, and a minimal introduction, so that lots of personal references in the text go unexplicated: is the ‘Cath. Stanley’ who is mentioned in passing as able to sit cross-legged, just like the Turkish and Greek men and women Morritt encountered, the Katherine Stanley he married in 1803? And who or what is ‘Mr Jacky Curious’, who crops up several times?
However, the book is fascinating, whether describing the courts of Brussels, Dresden or Vienna, the filthy lanes and architectural splendours of Constantinople, the disputed sites of Troy, the beehive tombs at Mycenae or the famous ‘classical attitudes’ of Lady Hamilton at Naples. That lady’s attributes are dwelt upon with a relish and enthusiasm which remind us that Morritt was only 25 when he met her. A quick scamper round Google has not revealed any more youthful images of him than the one in the book, which is taken from a portrait by Sir Martin Archer Shee in which Morritt is wearing the robes of the ‘arch-master’ of the Society of Dilettanti, at the age of 61.
One suspects that Morritt had – literally – the time of his life on this trip: he complains about the dirt, the food and the natives at every stage, but light-heartedly, and there is never any suggestion that the tour should be abandoned, in spite of the worsening political situation, frequent illness and the danger of lawless banditti almost everywhere he ventures. (Parts of the letters home, especially those to his mother, are spent in reassurance that the real dangers are always at least 50 leagues ahead, and maintain this constant distance.)
On his return to England, loaded with exotic textiles, cameos and sculptures (though he seemed to have been frustrated in his plans to cut out the Lapith and Centaur friezes from the Parthenon, leaving the field clear for the earl of Elgin a few years later), Morritt settled down to the life of a prosperous country gentleman, though at the intellectual end of the range. (Apart from another brief visit to France, he never left England again.) He became an M.P., maintaining independence from both great parties, and High Sheriff of Yorkshire. His friends and correspondents included Sir Walter Scott (who set his melodramatic poem of the Civil War, ‘Rokeby’, in Morritt’s house, and dedicated the work to him), the antiquarians Gell and Richard Payne Knight, Sir Humphry Davy, Sir Roderick Murchison, William Wilberforce, and Lord Elgin, whose side he took in the controversy over the acquisition of the Marbles.
As a controversialist, he carried out vigorous pamphlet wars on the subject of the location of Troy, the single authorship of the Homeric epics and the existence of Homer himself. He was probably best remembered after his death in 1843 for the acquisition of Velasquez’ ‘Rokeby Venus’ (now better know as ‘The Toilet of Venus’, and in the National Gallery). He wrote to Scott in 1820:
‘I have been all morning pulling about my pictures and hanging them in new positions to make more room for my fine picture of Venus’s backside by Velasquez which I have at length exalted over my chimney piece in the library. It is an admirable light for the painting, and shows it in perfection, whilst by raising the said backside to a considerable height the ladies may avert their downcast eyes without difficulty, and connoisseurs steal a glance without drawing in the said posterior as a part of the company.’
This genial and light-hearted tone belies a serious connoisseur – he frequently in his letters refuses to attempt a written description of a work or a building on the ground that his own words could not possibly do it justice – but also shows the quality of his correspondence during his travels: eager, enthusiastic, amusing, learned, but also wanting to learn more, clear-sighted and yet sometimes touchingly naïve. A cracking read, and a resolutely un-Byronic account of travel in a region which later suffered not a little from the raptures of Romanticism.
P.S. This is not only our first blog of 2012, but our 100th since we began – a bit of a milestone. Thanks to all who have supported us from the beginning, as well as to the increasing numbers who seem to be finding their way to our pages – and a Happy New Year to all!