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  • The Pantheon on the Mantelpiece
  • Tom Mole (bio)

From the agitation that preceded the Reform Bill of 1832 to the repercussions that followed that of 1885, Great Britain was engaged in an especially intense period of reflection on who constituted the nation and what they shared. Creating a shared identity in the present meant constructing a shared past, which often took the form of a pantheon of great men (and very few women). The founding of the National Gallery (1824), National Portrait Gallery (1856), Scottish National Gallery (1859), and Scottish National Portrait Gallery (1889) created prominent places to display images of notable individuals; from the 1790s on, “plans for national pantheonic structures were rife” (Yarrington 107). Pantheons could be discursive, like Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age (1825), or sculptural, such as those in Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Or they could be popular, such as the waxworks in Madame Tussaud’s collection (which the Edinburgh Review ironically described as “that British Valhalla” [“Mr. Disraeli” 421]) and the busts that decorated the “pantheon” assembly rooms in Oxford Street (1772–1814). Drawing up lists of the individuals who counted from the past helped produce a consensus about the nation’s shared heritage, during a period of intense uncertainty [End Page 22] about who would be counted—literally counted at the ballot box—in the present. In What the Victorians Made of Romanticism, I describe how the search for a new pantheonic structure quickly gave way to a new kind of pantheon, a museum without walls distributed across the rapidly changing cityscapes of London and Edinburgh and, before long, across the country as a whole. Britain didn’t acquire a pantheon in the nineteenth century: it became one.

But while the pantheon moved outward from Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral to the parks, streets, and squares of Britain’s cities, it also moved inward to the nation’s domestic interiors, where it was recreated in miniature. Many of the individuals commemorated in statues, monuments, or plaques were also represented in collectable figurines and busts, creating the possibility of a small-scale museum in the home. A number of collectable figures of Byron and Scott were produced in Staffordshire pottery, Parian (a highly finished kind of porcelain developed in the 1840s, which resembled marble), and spelter (an affordable alternative to bronze).1 They included busts and full-length figures, both of which were sometimes derived from existing statues of the poets. These artifacts were often marketed in pairs or groups for display on mantelpieces or elsewhere in domestic interiors. Byron was often paired with the “Maid of Athens,” and Scott with Robert Burns, and both appeared alongside non-literary figures such as Wellington and Nelson.2 Byron and Scott were also routinely paired with each other, and Robert Copeland’s catalogue of Parian figures listed several different sizes of busts of Scott “to match Byron” (Copeland 225). When T.S. Eliot wrote “I have always seen, or imagined that I saw, in busts of [Byron and Scott], a certain resemblance in the shape of the head,” he was recalling this convention of pairing authors’ busts (194).

Buying and displaying these items reiterated the construction of distributed, secular pantheons in London and Edinburgh. Busts of Wordsworth, Shelley, Goethe, and Thomas Moore were also produced, as were those of older poets such as Shakespeare and Dante and modern poets such as Tennyson and Browning. Female poets, however, tended to be underrepresented. The miniature pantheons constituted by potters’ catalogues and materialized in private collections, well-appointed private libraries, and tastefully decorated drawing rooms offered what Rohan McWilliam calls “a form of consensus building” producing “kinds of cultural integration” (111). Displayed in the rooms of the house where guests were received, these artifacts occupied liminal sites between public and private that offered a space in which to construct and exhibit one’s identity, even if what to display and where was also sometimes a source of disagreement among the members of the household. The subjectivity displayed on the mantelpiece was relationally derived: family portraits displayed kinship connections, a picture of the Queen or a souvenir of the Great Exhibition signalled membership of...


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