Author: Peter Rennie
Lord Byron’s visits to southern Albania in 1809 had made a great impression upon him. In the Albanians he found a peculiar charm which kindled his poetic imagination for exotic themes. In his notes to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage he wrote that the Albanians “struck me forcibly by their resemblance of the Highlanders of Scotland, in dress, figure and manner of living. Their very mountains seemed Caledonian, with a kinder climate. The kilt, though white; the spare, active form; their dialect, Celtic in its sound…”
In the summer of 1813 Byron put on the Albanian costume he had purchased four years earlier in Jannina and sat (or rather “stood”) to the fashionable portrait painter Thomas Phillips. The three-quarter length portrait depicts him in a crimson and gold velvet jacket with a red and gold and bluish-green striped shawl wound round his head like a turban, a white shirt with a large black jewel in a brooch at his throat and, cradling in his arms, a yataghan or sword with a purple-tinged hilt. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy as a “Portrait of a Nobleman in the dress of an Albanian.” It is now in the British Embassy in Athens. In 1835 and 1840 Phillips painted two copies of the portrait. The first in half-length was given by the artist’s son in 1862 to the National Portrait Gallery in London where it is on permanent display; the second, which was commissioned by John Murray, Byron’s publisher, is kept in the publishing firm’s premises in Albemarle Street, London.
And what became of the Albanian costume? After the Royal Academy exhibition, Byron sent it to Miss Mercer Elphinstone, a wealthy Scottish heiress, and it eventually passed into possession of the Lansdowne family and rediscovered in 1962, when a Byron scholar, Doris Langley Moore, went to the Landsdowne family home at Bowood House in Wiltshire to select items from the family collection for a costume museum she was establishing in Bath. In an article published in the Costume Society Journal in 1971 she describes her excitement when she came across a rich crimson velvet jacket and waistcoat. She recognized it as “Byron’s Albanian dress!” After having been on display at the Museum of Costume in Bath the costume was later returned to Bowood where it is still to be seen. Appropriately nearby are two mezzotints on a wall of the original recipient of the costume, Mercer Elphinstone, who has preserved a visible link between Byron and Albania.
Excerpted from BYRON AND THE ALBANIAN CONNECTION by Peter Rennie, The Anglo-Albanian Association, London.