Sunday, 17 September 2017

"The Farthing Poet", a Victorian individualist



Charles Dickens is known for the many remarkable characters in his novels, but among his large circle of acquaintances there was one person that he might have hesitated to create as fictional, best known as 'Orion Horne'.

Widely travelled, a poet, playwright, journalist and social reformer, unsuccessfully married, self- invented and enterprising, young Richard Henry Horne had left Sandhurst in 1820, aged just 18. Inspired by Shelley to become a poet in 1823, just two years later he sailed with the Mexican Navy and fought at Vera Cruz. Chambers' Dictionary describes this early career somewhat breathlessly:

"having survived yellow fever, sharks, broken ribs, shipwreck, mutiny and fire, he returned to England and took up writing."

Horne was known for his Spanish guitar playing, his cape and his theatrical whiskers and moustache, among his interconnecting circles of friends and colleagues in London.


Richard Henry Horne, c. 1840    Margaret Gillies*   © National Portrait Gallery London 

These poets, editors and publishers included Leigh Hunt, Charles Lamb, and the Quaker writers William and Mary Howitt, William Macready the Drury Lane impresario, Charles Dickens (whom he met in Macready's dressing room) and Dickens' biographer John Forster.   



William and Mary Howitt,  miniature by Margaret Gillies 
© Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

Horne wrote for their new topical journals on many subjects and styles, often using exotic pseudonyms, through the 1830s, but his real ambition lay in his Jacobean-style verse dramas, (e.g. The Death of Marlowe, 1837).    He campaigned for a Society for English Literature and Art, to support "men of superior ability" against "the False Medium and Barriers excluding Men of Genius from the Public" and felt that "all departments of human genius and knowledge" should combine for the good of man.

In 1839 he began writing to Elizabeth Barrett (Browning) who contributed to his edition of Chaucer's Poems, Modernised.  This was published in 1841, when Horne was working in Wolverhampton as a government Assistant Commissioner reporting on child labour in mines and factories.  His detailed report  inspired Elizabeth Barrett to write The Cry of the Children in 1843.  He compares a rich child practising the piano, with a poor factory child striking a wrong key on a machine and losing its fingers, and reveals that when these neglected children pray "Our Father", they think that is the whole prayer.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Italy, 1858   Michele Giordiani

1843 also saw the publication of his major epic poem Orion, to general praise, and for which he is best known, as 'Orion Horne', partly through his own publicity.  It was to be sold for one farthing exactly, and only to those who pronounced its title correctly; this was his riposte to the public neglect of poetry.
He was also successful with his critical biographies (helped by Elizabeth Barrett), A New Spirit of the Age in 1844 and his popular children's book Memoirs of a London Doll in 1846.  Unwisely marrying  Kate Foggo in 1847, he began working on Dickens' new monthly journal Household Words in 1850. 

By 1852, abandoning his marriage, his old wanderlust and unsatisfied ambition sent him sailing to the Australian goldfields with fellow writer William Howitt, where he commanded Melbourne's Private Gold Escort in the outback.

One of many books written by Howitt, based on his and Horne's early years in the outback.

During a chequered career as writer and administrator,  he was ousted from his position as area magistrate in a controversy over illegal liquor sales, and in the 1860s produced a lyrical drama Prometheus, and other epic poems which he felt were unappreciated. Disillusioned, he sailed for England in 1869,  still writing poems, articles, plays and romances for periodicals, now under the name of Richard Hengist Horne, possibly (or not) appropriating the name from someone he met in the  outback. He survived on a government pension,  as "a literary doyen, producing many new works all artistically worthless"** until his death in 1884.

A chameleon figure in the Victorian literary world, he pioneered new styles and new ideas in his writing:  Dickens' symbolic dust heaps in Our Mutual Friend were partly inspired by one of Horne's articles.  But perhaps his greatest legacy was his detailed report for the Child Labour Commission in 1841, contributing to the 1847 Ten Hour Act and Lord Shaftesbury's successful campaigning.

The Cry of the Children 
" Do you hear the children weeping,…
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring
Through the coal-dark, underground --
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round,…"

E. Barrett Browning, 1843

*Margaret Gillies made a successful career for herself as a rare independent woman artist, known for her portraits of many public figures.  She was also one of Horne's friends, illustrating his children's  books.
 ** according to Ann Blainey, Horne's biographer: "The Farthing Poet," 1968 

Monday, 4 September 2017

September: a visit to Constable country


Willy Lott's Cottage, Dedham Vale;  watercolour, grey ink   John Constable 1832  © British Museum 

Friday, 1st September
"A crisp, chilly morning, with that whiff of melancholy in the air.  Autumn is well on the way.  I would not mind if only I felt well, clear-headed and un-drugged.  Sisson* took me to Flatford Mill which the N.T. has acquired.  I love Constable, but I do not love this place.  It has been made a travesty of the totally unpretentious, rural, domestic scene of one of England's greatest painters.  Today the manor house is too picture postcardy for words.  Willy Lott's Cottage is abominably whimsy inside.  Sisson favours whitewashing or white painting all interior beams, I am glad to say. I concur with nearly all his ideas.  The Mill itself is still relatively unspoilt, and the island garden, with fat box hedges and old apple trees is full of charm.

We drove to Thorington Hall.  It has a rather neglected look, and the furniture inside -- well!  The house has had evacuees, and not been inhabited as a private house since the war, which explains much.

Thorington Hall's landmark octagonal, star-topped chimneys at Stoke-by-Nayland


Paycocke's House  elaborate carved frontage 

I left the Sissons after luncheon, and drove to Paycocke's, that hideously over-restored house in Coggeshall.  The tenants' bogus French furniture most inappropriate.  Sisson and I would like to whitewash all the harsh new brick nogging on the street elevation."

Prophesying Peace  James Lees-Milne 1944

Dedham Vale and Dedham Church  John Constable 1828 
© National Gallery of Scotland

Flatford Mill, Thorington Hall, and Paycocke's House in Coggeshall, near Colchester  were all acquired by the National Trust.  They represent the prosperity of the Stour and other  East Anglian river valleys where, like the medieval monks before them, Tudor butchers progressed from keeping  flocks of sheep to becoming wealthy cloth merchants, with river transport to major ports like Ipswich (where Cardinal Wolsey's father was a butcher-cum-grazier and merchant). By the eighteenth century cloth manufacture moved north and the cloth-fulling mills were converted to grain mills, like Flatford, where the Constable family farmed, and shipped their flour down to Pin Mill near Ipswich.


Dedham Lock and Mill   John Constable 1820  ©V&A Museum


*Marshall Sisson was an architect who lived in Shermans House in Dedham; in August the next year Lees-Milne stayed with the Sissons for the weekend:  "Sisson and I walked to Flatford Mill, where we watched the milling crowds bathing, running, jumping and enjoying themselves".  Prophesying Peace  1945  James Lees-Milne

Maybe they walked along Fen Lane, which was Constable's boyhood path from East Bergholt to school in Dedham?

Fen Lane, East Bergholt  John Constable 1817  © Tate Britain