About this image
In April 1809 Byron commissioned an artist to paint himself and a friend Robert Rushton in a romantic pose beside a vaguely alien shore. This engraving posthumously published on November 6 1830 was taken from that painting. George Gordon Byron (the poet) was born in a London boarding house on 22 January 1788. He was the only child of Captain John Byron by his second wife, the Scottish heiress Catherine Gordon. He was born with a club-foot and became extreme sensitivity about his lameness. Byron spent his early childhood years in poor surroundings in Aberdeen, where he was educated until he was ten. At the age of ten he became the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale, inheriting his title and the Newstead estate from his great-uncle William, the so-called 'Wicked' Lord, whom he had never met. Between 1803 and 1808 Byron spent time with his mother Catherine in the Nottinghamshire town of Southwell where she had rented Burgage Manor. Byron returned there when not at his studies at Dulwich, Harrow, and Cambridge (where he piled up debts and aroused alarm with bisexual love affairs.) Staying at Newstead in 1802, he probably first met his half-sister, Augusta Leigh with whom he was later suspected of having an incestuous relationship. In 1807 Byron's first collection of poetry, 'Hours Of Idleness' appeared. It received bad reviews. The poet answered his critics with the satire English Bards And Scotch Reviewers in 1808. He then took his degree in 1808 and moved into Newstead Abbey that autumn. There he spent much of his time preparing his satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers for publication in 1809. For economy's sake, they re-decorated and furnished only some of the smaller rooms at Newstead and were obliged to leave the rest semi-derelict. As Byron's friend William Harness later recalled: ...a straggling, gloomy, depressive, partially-inhabited place the Abbey was. Those rooms, however, which had been fitted up for residence were so comfortably appointed, glowing with crimson hangings and cheerful with capacious fires, that one soon lost the melancholy feeling of being domiciled in an extensive ruin. During his brief residence at Newstead Byron established an eccentric household well-suited to his bachelor days. The two largest rooms, the Great Hall and the Great Dining Room, had been cleared out and abandoned since before Byron was born. Lacking the means to restore them to their former glory, the poet used them for sporting activities. There he and his university friends practised fencing, boxing and pistol shooting. From his student rooms at Trinity College he brought his gilded bed and a tame bear. The bear roamed the Abbey in the company of Byron's other pet animals, including several large dogs, tortoises and a wolf. The wine cellar was well-stocked with good claret and the library contained many fine books - for, Byron spent much of his time at Newstead reading and writing. Next year he took his seat in the House of Lords, and set out on his grand tour, visiting Spain, Malta, Albania, Greece, and the Aegean. Byron had returned to England in July 1811 and on February 27 1812 made his first speech in the House of Lords. In it he condemned the Frame-Breaking Bill, which made smashing the new mechanical looms a capital offence. Byron defended the many Nottinghamshire workers who had lost their livelihoods to machines and argued for government policies which would help the people and relieve their poverty. He sat on the committee that successfully modified the bill, substituting fines or imprisonment for the death penalty. He became an adored character of London society; he spoke in the House of Lords effectively on liberal themes, and had a hectic love-affair with Lady Caroline Lamb. However, he soon gave up his parliamentary career to concentrate on writing. The poem he wrote during his Mediterranean travels was published in March 1812 under the title Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, and created a sensation, selling out in the first three days. Unlike Byron's earlier poems, which had not attracted much notice, Childe Harold made him a celebrity. His readers were fascinated by this first appearance of the 'Byronic hero', which remained an inspiration for European artists, writers and composers throughout the 19th century. Byron's 'The Corsair' (1814), sold 10,000 copies on the first day of publication. He married Anne Isabella Milbanke in 1815, and their daughter Ada was born in the same year. The marriage was unhappy, and they obtained legal separation next year. The poet's fame increased with the brilliant success of more verse tales about brooding outlaws and distant lands, published soon after. He lived at Newstead, at various times, until the autumn of 1814, shortly before he married. By this time, financial pressures had forced him to put Newstead up for sale, but it proved difficult to find a buyer. Byron left England in 1816, never to return. In 1818, the estate was purchased for £94,500 by Thomas Wildman, a friend from Byron's school days. Wildman spent a further £100,000, an enormous sum at that time, refurbishing Newstead Abbey and its grounds. Byron settled in Geneva with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Claire Clairmont, who became his mistress. There he wrote the 'The Prisoner of Chillon'. At the end of the summer Byron continued his travels, spending two years in Italy. During his years in Italy, Byron wrote Lament of Tasso, inspired by his visit in Tasso's cell in Rome, Mazeppa and started Don Juan, his satiric masterpiece. While in Ravenna and Pisa, Byron became deeply interested in drama, and wrote among others The Two Foscari, Sardanapalaus, Cain, and the unfinished Heaven And Earth. After a long creative period, Byron had come to feel that action was more important than poetry. After a long creative period, Byron had come to feel that action was more important than poetry. He armed a brig, the Hercules, and sailed to Greece to aid the Greeks, who had risen against their Ottoman overlords. However, before he saw any serious military action, Byron contracted a fever from which he died in Missolonghi on 19 April 1824. Memorial services were held all over the land. Byron's body was returned to England but was refused (because of his notoriety) by the deans of both Westminster and St Paul's. Finally Byron's coffin was placed in the family vault at St Mary Magdalene Church, Hucknall Torkard, near to Newstead Abbey.