Richard Westalls portrait of Byron in Hughenden, Disraeli’s house in Buckinghamshire
In 1817, Lord Byron, the romantic poet, was at the height of his fame, or “Byromania” as his wife described it. His reputation as crazy, bad, and dangerous to know made him especially alluring to female fans.
His fame continues to this day – and a new book by scholars Geoffrey Bond and Christine Kenyon Jones entitled Dangerous To Show: Byron and His Portraits tells how a lame little boy who grew up in Aberdeen became one of our great literary figures has been. It describes Byron’s life story through painting and sculpture, and examines how his good looks helped him become a major celebrity during the reign.
Although he has traveled widely across Europe and died in Greece in his early 30s, his story can be pieced together in the UK, with some wonderful places directly connected to him and alluring places to stay.
Newstead Abbey: The abbey is Byron’s Gothic ancestral home in Nottinghamshire, inherited when he unexpectedly became Lord Byron at the age of ten. You can see all kinds of memorabilia here, including paintings of the poet that look glamorously melancholy as portrayed by Thomas Phillips, or more moody in profile by George Harlow or with Italian-style curls in a miniature by Girolamo Prepiani. Adult tickets from £ 10 (newsteadabbey.org.uk).
Stay: Saracen’s Head Hotel in the pretty Georgian market town of Southwell is an old half-timbered house where King Charles I was captured and brought to his execution. It also features some of the best preserved medieval murals in the country. It is located near Burgage Manor, Burgage Green, where a plaque records the residence of the teenage Byron with his mother between 1803 and 1808. B&B from £ 100 per night (saracensheadhotel.com).
Newstead Abbey is Byron’s Gothic ancestral home in Nottinghamshire, inherited when he unexpectedly became Lord Byron at the age of ten. Here you can view all kinds of memorabilia
Bowood House: To see the portrait of Thomas Phillips by Byron in his Albanian costume, you would have to travel to the British Ambassador’s residence in Athens. But you can see the actual costume and see what Byron might have looked like in it in a brilliant, if somewhat creepy, wax figure at Bowood House in Wiltshire. In 1814, Byron gave the costume to his friend Margaret Elphinstone and it was passed on through her family until it was discovered in a dressing room in Bowood in the 1960s.
Stay: The house will reopen in the spring, but you can stay year round at the luxurious Bowood Hotel in the heart of the 2,000 acre estate. Hotel guests have free access to Bowood House & Gardens, which is open April through October. B&B from £ 155 a night (bowood.org).
Hughenden Manor: Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli idolized Byron and bought an 1813 portrait of Richard Westall to hang in Hughenden, his Buckinghamshire country house.
Now owned by the National Trust, you can tour the beautiful house and gardens. Westall introduced himself to Byron as the melancholy hero of his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and gave him an Elizabethan-style costume and sword. In the 1870s, Disraeli supported a campaign to commemorate Byron in London. The resulting statue can be seen in Hyde Park Corner not far from the place where Byron lived with his wife Annabella from 1815-16. Tickets from £ 8 (nationaltrust.org.uk/hughenden).
Stay: Four miles from Hughenden, on the banks of the Thames, is the town of Marlow, where the historic Checkers Pub has served beer since Byron was born. There is an excellent restaurant and eight cozy rooms to choose from. B&B from £ 80 a night (thechequersmarlow.co.uk).
Trinity College, Cambridge: Byron was a student at Trinity from 1805 to 1807. Students were prohibited from keeping dogs, so he showed up with a full-size bear. While there, Byron fell in love with a choirboy and learned very little. After his death, a memorial statue by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen was placed in the Trinity Wren Library. It was originally intended for Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, but the Dean refused to have it because of Byron’s reputation – and Byron had to wait until 1969 to commemorate the Abbey. The college is currently closed to visitors due to Covid, but it is usually possible to visit the Wren Library, Great Court, and Nevile’s Court, where Byron is believed to have lived (trin.cam.ac.uk).
A memorial statue by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen in Trinity College’s Wren Library
Stay: Less than five minutes from college, The Varsity Hotel has a rooftop terrace and bar with great views. B&B from £ 136 per night (thevarsityhotel.co.uk).
Aberdeen: Byron was born in London but was half Scottish by birth and raised in Aberdeen from the age of one to ten. He was probably born with a clubfoot, and he and his mother Catherine Gordon, 13th Laird of Gight, lived in modest accommodations. Her estate was sold before Byron was born to meet the cost of his father, Captain ‘Mad Jack’ Byron, who died when Byron was three years old. The ruined Gight Castle still stands picturesquely (but inaccessible) over the River Ythan north of the city.
Stay: The Malmaison Hotel is an atmospheric old granite building close to town and a stone’s throw from Aberdeen High School, where Byron was a student. B&B from £ 70pp per night (malmaison.com).
Dangerous to Show: Byron And His Portraits is out now, costs £ 25 and is published by Unicorn.