Lord Byron’s Albanian Costume On Exhibit at Bowood Estates

Author: Ms. Kate Fielden

Lord Byron

Lord Byron

During Lord Byron’s visit to Janina in southern Albania in 1809, he purchased an Albanian costume in which he sat or rather “stood” for the fashionable portrait painter, Thomas Phillips in the summer of 1813. The three-quarter length portrait titled “Portrait of a Nobleman in the dress of an Albanian” depicts Byron 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. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy and 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? Byron conducted a flirtatious correspondence with Margaret Mercer Elphinstone, daughter of Lord Keith, and in 1814, he gave her the Albanian costume suggesting she use it for fancy dress. 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 Langley Moore 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 Albanian costume was later returned to Bowood for exhibit purposes. 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.

Model wearing Byron's Albanian dress

Model wearing Byron’s Albanian dress

Bowood House & Gardens
Bowood was bought by the 2nd Earl of Shelburne in 1754, in a half-completed state and finished before 1760. Part of the house was demolished in 1955, and thre rest rearranged in a very happy transformation. Half of what remains is open to the public. The family inherited from their ancestor, Sir William Petty, “whatever degree of sense may have appeared in it, or whatever wealth is likely to remain with it.”

Petty’s widow became Baroness Shelburne, and it is their grandson who settled at Bowood, and their great-grandson who became the first Marquis of Lansdowne. It was he, better known as Shelburne, who befriended Joseph Priestly, the early chemist – who invented oxygen at Bowood. Shelburne also communicated with Johnson, Goldsmith, Hume and George Washington. His great political feat (as Prime Minister) was peace negotiated with the new, young United States in 1783. His son made a great art collection and a fine library, and his great-grandson was Governor-General of Canada and Viceroy of India, and Foreign Secretary.

Though initiating the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904, he also advocated Peace by Negotiation with Germany in 1917. The talents of this family enlighten the house, and their accumulation of centuries beautify the interior. Outside, there are 800 ha of grounds with handsome features — a Doric Temple, a pinetum and arboretum, and a most spectacular Cascade. The Adventure Playground is praised by its young users, and the quite separate Rhododendrum Gardens are open for six weeks during May and June. The 8th Marquess’ son, Lord Shelburne, took over management of Bowood in 1972. He opened the house and grounds to the public in 1975 and later converted the stables and grooms’ quarters into exhibition rooms. restaurant and gift shop. Also on exhibit at Bowood are Napoleon’s death mask, the glittering Keith jewels and an exceptional collection of English watercolors, including works by Bonington and Turner.

Frosina thanks Bowood’s Curator, Ms. Kate Fielden, for supplying the photo and Albanian costume information and Ms. Alison McGrain of Boston’s British Consulate-General for the description of Bowood House & Gardens

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