King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Byron & politics: ‘born for opposition’


Front cover of exhibition catalogue. On the occasion of the 39th International Byron Conference, held this year at King’s College London from 1 to 6 July 2013, we were delighted to introduce the catalogue for the exhibition Byron & politics: ‘born for opposition’. Jointly mounted by the John Murray Archive of the National Library of Scotland (NLS) and the Foyle Special Collections Library of King’s College London (KCL), the exhibition took place in the College’s Maughan Library in Chancery Lane from 24 June to 25 September 2013.

While the exhibits themselves throw light on the many aspects of Byron’s involvement in politics, the exhibition also brings together several aspects of his life through the associations of the institutions involved.

The oldest of these, the National Library of Scotland, was founded in the 1680s as the Advocates Library in Edinburgh and was already in existence in this form in Byron’s time. The NLS’s involvement reminds us of Byron’s Scottish heritage – ‘half a Scot by birth, and bred / A whole one’ (Don Juan x.17), as he said – and of the importance to him of this aspect of his birth and upbringing. The John Murray publishing house, founded in 1768 by the first (Scottish) John Murray, was of course Byron’s publisher. It was to John Murray II that many of his most remarkable letters were addressed, and subsequent distinguished John Murrays have continued to be notable collectors and publishers of Byroniana of all kinds.

Engraved frontispiece portrait depicting Byron in Missolonghi with his second Newfoundland dog, Lyon.Frontispiece by Robert Seymour to William Parry's book The Last Days of Lord Byron. Private collection. See item 49.King’s College London was founded five years after Byron’s death, in 1829, by King George IV and the first Duke of Wellington: establishment figures about both of whom Byron was notably critical. He would, however, have recognised the Strand site of King’s, because it was next door to the premises in Somerset House where two of his portraits were displayed in 1814 as part of the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. He would perhaps have been interested to know that King’s was one of the first university institutions in England to have a department of English, and to teach English literature at degree level. He might also have noted that one of his contemporary Romantic poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (whose ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Christabel’ Byron persuaded John Murray II to publish) was associated with the establishment of the College.

The Maughan Library and the Foyle Special Collections Library occupy the building on the Rolls Estate that formerly accommodated the Public Record Office. Known as ‘The Strong Box of the Empire’, it was constructed from 1847 as a repository for parliamentary records after the fire which in 1834 destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster that Byron knew. It was there, as a member of the House of Lords, that he gave his famous maiden speech in 1812 in support of the Nottinghamshire ‘frame-breakers’: an early instance of his involvement in politics that is explored in this exhibition.

Professor Sir Richard Trainor
King’s College London

Robin Byron
13th Lord Byron
President, the Byron Society

In this exhibition

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