In 1769 Thomas Gray, best known today for his poem Elegy in a Country Churchyard, went on an extensive tour of the Lake District in NW England, writing it up in one of those notebooks. A few years later watercolourist Joseph Farington RA followed in Gray’s footsteps, painting views of this beautiful landscape as seen through Gray’s eyes.
Fast forward 250 years and you can see the results of that duo’s work, intriguingly updated by publisher John Murray, in conjunction with the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, Cumbria. “In 1993 I inherited six small Thomas Gray notebooks, each filled with his tidy handwriting and all housed in an elegant box specially made for them … Having always been a lover of the Lake District (known as the English Lakes until the beginning of the nineteenth century) … I immediately opened ‘Cumberland, Westmorland, Lancashire and Yorkshire.”
So began John Murray’s personal journey of exploration, resulting in the beautifully illustrated book, A Tour of the English Lakes with Thomas Gray & Joseph Farington RA, and Pen, Paint & Pixels at the The Wordsworth Trust Museum. John Murray has meticulously researched the scenes and taken a series of superb photographs; Nicholas Crane, presenter of BBC ‘Coast’, said at the opening, “The combination of John’s remarkable modern photographs beside Farington’s watercolours and sketches give you an evocative sense of how the landscape has changed over time.”
The exhibition is really easy to navigate, showcasing not only Gray’s notebooks alongside Farington’s paintings and engravings, but also a variety of artefacts from their journeys. I was most intrigued by the ‘Claude Glass’, a notebook-like device that enabled the observer to turn their back on a panoramic scene and see it as a neat view – ideal for artists and lady travellers who might be of a nervous disposition in this area of ‘terrifying beauty’. Most people enjoy the game of comparing the ‘Past and Present’ views clearly displayed in a brand new addition to this world-class research centre.
The Wordsworth Trust Museum, set on the edge of Grasmere, is home to a truly world-class collection of priceless manuscripts, paintings , books and memorabilia celebrating Wordsworth, his life, works and the Romantic Movement that has influenced so very many people ever since he moved into tiny Dove Cottage. A tour of this historic, quaint little building, which used to be an Inn called the Dove & Olive Branch, gives the visitor a glimpse of the poet’s daily life when he was at his most creative. It’s next door to the Wordsworth Trust, showing Pen, Paint & Pixels until January 2013.
There is an excellent Smartphone App to accompany the book and exhibition which enables visitors to explore the actual sites around the Lake District and take photos to compare with the originals. Read how I got on trying it out in A Photography Treasure Hunt.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Visit Britain SuperBlog