Thorvaldsen’s Statue of Byron

The Wren Library contains an exceptional collection of sculpture. One of the highlights is the magnificent statue of George Gordon, Lord Byron by Bertel Thorvaldsen.

Byron, one of the greatest of English Romantic poets, was admitted to Trinity College Cambridge in 1805. He was at first “miserable and untoward to a degree …. wretched at going to Cambridge instead of Oxford” but he soon grew to like his ‘Superexcellent Rooms’ in Great Court and wrote to a friend that that ‘college improves in everything but Learning, nobody here seems to look into an author ancient or modern if they can avoid it’. He also began to live the life of excess for which brought him much infamy. At Trinity, he spent lavishly on wine, port, claret and madeira; developed a ‘violent, though pure passion’ for a young, male, chorister and, when told that it was against the rules to keep his pet bulldog in College, installed a bear in the tower above his rooms.

He received his MA in 1808, left Cambridge for London, and soon become one of the leading lights in Regency society. In March 1812 his poem, Childe Harold, was published by John Murray. It sold out in three days and, overnight, Byron became famous. As his reputation as a poet and a public figure grew so did his notoriety as a figure of scandal. Rumours about his sexual indiscretions abounded and this, combined with debt, a broken and disastrous marriage and eventual public disgrace drove him from Britain. Scandal followed Byron as he travelled around Europe until his death at Missolonghi in 1824 by which time he had become closely associated with the fight for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire.

A suggestion that Byron should be buried in Westminster Abbey was rejected on the grounds of immorality by the Dean of Westminster who also refuted the idea that an effigy of the poet be placed in Poet’s Corner.

John Cam Hobhouse , Byron’s friend and great admirer from his days at Trinity, established a Byron Monument Committee with John Murray as secretary with a view to commissioning an appropriate memorial. Public subscriptions were sought and by 1829 the sum of £1600 had been raised. Hobhouse approached the Danish sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen, who accepted the commission enthusiastically. Work began on the drawings in 1830, on the marble in 1831. The statue is one of Thorvaldsen’s greatest works. Sitting amongst the debris of a Greek temple lying on an elegant plinth decorated on one side only, Byron holds a copy of Childe Harold in one hand and a pencil in the other, his head turned to the side. The image is one of contemplation and calm: a serene portrait greatly in contrast to the turbulent life he lived.

In 1834 the statue was shipped from Thorvaldsen’s studio in Rome to London where it languished in a warehouse for ten years because of the almost obsessive determination of Hobhouse that it be placed in Westminster Abbey. This had been met in full by the equally determined resistance of the abbatial authorities to having the statue of Byron within its precincts.

In 1840 George Pryme, a member of Trinity and the MP for Cambridge, suggested that the statue be placed in the College. Nothing came of this but in 1843 a formal application to the Byron Monument Committee was made by the College asking for the statue. Hobhouse finally accepted that a home for the statue would never be found in Westminster Abbey and agreed to its coming to Trinity in 1844. On the 18th of October 1845, the statue was hoisted into the Wren Library where it has remained ever since.

2 thoughts on “Thorvaldsen’s Statue of Byron

  1. Robin (Lord) Byron (Trinity 1969-73)

    It is worth pointing out that, while the statue is posthumous, Byron had sat for a marble bust by Thorvaldsen in Rome in 1817 – the first version of which is now in the Royal Collection.

  2. Andrew Cranney

    Of its own beauty is the mind diseased,
    And fevers into false creation: – where,
    Where are the forms the sculptor’s soul hath seized? –
    In him alone. Can Nature show so fair?
    Where are the charms and virtues which we dare
    Conceive in boyhood and pursue as men,
    The unreached Paradise of our despair,
    Which o’er-informs the pencil and the pen,
    And overpowers the page where it would bloom again?

    (Canto the Fourth, CXXII, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)

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