Bristol Pneumatic Medical Institution, for the treatment of poor and needy people.

In 1793, Dr. Thomas Beddoes MD (1760-1808), English physician and scientific writer at Oxford University, found he could no longer live in Oxford because of his sympathy with the French Republicans, and decided to settle in Clifton, with a view to establishing a Pneumatic Institute for the treatment of diseases by inhalation. A young doctor helping Beddoes with the outpatients was Peter Mark Roget, later author of the Thesaurus (1852). The apparatus for the intended experiment was constructed by James Watt, Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer, and financed by Mr. Lambton, and Thomas Wedgwood, son of Joseph Wedgwood the potter, who had all moved to Clifton to enjoy Beddoes’s society. In 1798, the institution was opened in Dowry Square, at that time the residential heart of Hotwell Spa, and later in Broad Quay. Although the institution might have failed in its professed objective, Dr. Beddoes’s work is considered important for having fostered the genius of young Humphry Davy, Superintendent of the Institution, who there discovered the properties of nitrous-oxide gas in 1799, otherwise known as laughing gas, and the forerunner of modern anaesthetics. It is now recognised that laughter prompts the brain, which can’t tell the difference between real and fake laughter, to release endorphins that can have a powerful effect on the mind. Dr. Beddoes married Maria Edgeworth’s (see Chapter 14) sister Anna, and through her had a son Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849), who became a poet and dramatist, but committed suicide in Basel, Switzerland. The institute closed in 1801 and Dr. Beddoes died in 1808.

Beddoes’s Society reflected a growing national empathy with the poor and needy and proved to be a catalyst for many other great things, the fruits of which included Humphrey Davy’s and Thomas Wedgwood’s close friendship, that encouraged them to experiment in early photography together. Dr. Beddoes was also a friend of poet Samuel Coleridge Taylor and an important influence on Coleridges’s early thinking, introducing him to higher criticism. A series of laughing gas parties doubtless ensued, when Coleridge passed the summer of 1797, with almost ceaseless laughter and high spirits, constant visits, talk and sociability, love and warm happiness, excitement and buoyancy, during his stay in Somerset. Coleridge was bipolar and also used opium to treat his condition. (Opium, then as common as aspirin is now, was not only available from any chemist, but also butchers, bakers, and even rent collectors. It was present in many patent medicines and, when dissolved in alcohol, made a preparation known as laudanum).
In 1791, William Wordsworth had been dissuaded from marrying his French mistress, Annette Vallon (who in 1792 bore his illegitimate daughter, Caroline), because of his lack of money and the likelihood of war between Britain and France. Wordsworth walked from Tintern Abbey to Bristol in one day, where he helped Coleridge launch the Romantic Age in English literature, with the 1798 joint publication of Lyrical Ballads, a portrayal of the poor and outcast. In it they re-kindled a form of humble and rustic poetry, inspired by poets such as the late-medieval Edmund Spenser (see Chapter 7), which was powerfully linked to nature; they recorded their spontaneous recollections of overflowing feelings. Wordsworth first met Coleridge in 1795, at 7, Great George Street, Bristol, now the Georgian House. The book was printed in Bristol, by Joseph Cottle their Bristol publisher, who also published works by Robert Southey, Charles Lamb, and an edition of Thomas Chatterton’s poems. Cottle was also an author and bookseller, who came into contact with other literary figures of the day including, Hannah More (see Chapter 14), Ann Yearsley (see Chapter 14), Humphry Davy, John Wesley, de Quincey, Mary Russell Mitford and Lord Byron.

To put Byron in context, in 1807, two years after Lord Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, Byron wrote Hours of Idleness, which sold well in the towns and watering places. In 1811, he returned from his travels to the Levant, and between 1812-18, he wrote Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, published by John Murray, the London publisher of Robert Southey, Jane Austen and Walter Scott. They were an over-night sensation in Old London Town, and very soon everywhere else, and they made the world fall at his feet. Although there is no written evidence to confirm Byron’s connection with Beddoes’s Society, his gravity in the literary world created by the national success of his publications, combined with his passionate private life with the aristocracy, suggests there was much interest and support for him in that decade, even though by the end of it society in England had turned against him. Coleridge himself likened Byron’s smile to the opening of the gate of Heaven. The young Robert Southey, like Byron, had originally been a supporter of the French Revolution, and Napoleon rather than the Bourbons, but after 1815, with the defeat of Napoleon, he was later persuaded towards the humble and rustic conservatism of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Southey was, like Coleridge, a member of Beddoes’s Society, and an English poet of the Romantic school and of the so-called Lake Poets, who became Poet Laureate for 30 years, from 1813 to his death in 1843. Wordsworth was Poet Laureate from 1843 to his death in 1850.

In 1810-11, the Prince Street Assembly Rooms, Bristol, became the venue for historical lectures by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, with contributions by Robert Southey, entitled A Course of Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton, in Illustration of the Principles of Poetry. This was part of a programme of lectures Coleridge gave on Shakespeare, between 1810 and 1820, in London and Bristol. Shortly afterwards, Coleridge and Southey emigrated temporarily, to establish a Utopian circle in Pennsylvania, America, similar to the ill-fated 1821 Utopian circle of Shelley and Byron, the metaphysical poets, in Pisa, Italy, where Shelley was drowned in a storm, somewhere off the coast of Lerici, with a copy of Keats’s Lamia and a volume of Sophocles in his pocket.

The Bristol School of Artists were at the height of their ability during the 1820s. For example, Rownham Ferry by Rolinda Sharples was painted in 1820-22 (see Chapter 15). The School was not a formal organisation but rather a circle of artists and their friends who enjoyed sketching together in beautiful countryside and making drawings of imaginary landscapes at evening. In 1813, Francis Danby RA (1793-1861) walked almost penniless from London to Bristol, in the hope of catching a sailing packet back home to Cork in Ireland. But he stayed in Bristol, and became perhaps one of the most important of all the Bristol School, because he is now considered among the leading British artists of the Romantic period, along with John Martin and J. M. W. Turner. The Romantic Era was embodied most strongly in the visual arts, music and literature, and a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, which served to numb people’s feelings to the profundities of life.

Danby admired the poetic style of the Bristol amateur artist, Francis Gold (a surgeon), and consequently encouraged his fellow artists to paint poetic or Romantic landscapes, inspired by local scenery. All of the Bristol School spent whole days sketching, painting and pick-nicking with their families in the Avon Gorge, including Edward Bird RA (1772-1819). In 1813, Bird was appointed Historical Painter to Princess Charlotte, the Prince Regent’s daughter, and in 1815 he became a Royal Academician. He had permission to sail on the royal yacht when Louis XVIII returned to France as king, after Napoleon had been exiled to Elba, and in about 1816, painted The Embarkation of Louis XVIII at Dover, 1814. Another Bristol School artist was George Cumberland (1754-1848), whose small landscaped studies came close to John Linnell’s, one of the most successful Victorian artists. Cumberland was close friend and patron of William Blake (1757-1827), in London. Groups of them went for mid-summer’s evening excursions, to sketch in Leigh Woods and Nightingale Valley, with the Reverend John Eagles (1783-1855), who was then curate at St. Nicholas’s church, on the River Avon, in Bristol (blitzed in WWII). St. Nicholas is patron saint of mariners; Psalm 132:6. we have found a place for the Lord in the fields of the woods.

Dr. John King (1766-1846), uncle to Thomas Lovell Beddoes, had worked with Dr. Beddoes before becoming an artist and engraver in London. King married Emmeline Edgeworth, the other sister of the novelist Maria Edgeworth. Then there was, Samuel Jackson RA(1794-1869), James Baker Pyne (1800-1870), Rolinda Sharples (1793-1838), Samuel Coleman (1780-1845), James Johnson (1802-1834), Joseph Walter (1783-1856), Thomas Leeson Rowbottom (1782-1853), Nathan Cooper Branwhite (1775-1857) and Paul Falconer Poole (1807-1879), an American artist who ran off with Danby’s wife. William West (1793-1861) lived in the Observatory, with his telescopes and camera obscura, which some of them used to construct their paintings and drawings (see Chapter 12). In 1924, after Coleridge’s and Southey’s return from America, Edward Villiers Rippingille (1798-1859) painted The Stagecoach Breakfast, which included minor portraits of William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Robert Southey, and their Bristol publisher Joseph Cottle.

In the winter of 1824-25, Nathan Branwhite helped orchestrate the first exhibition of work of Bristol Artists and kept in touch with Francis Danby, after Danby had moved back to London. This maintained the social cohesion of the group, which was lost by the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, when the new generation of Bristol Artists did not have a distinct local identity. In 1845, William West painted The Israelites passing through the wilderness, preceded by the Pillar of Light, but by then, such an epic treatment of a biblical subject was old-fashioned and it is the last of the Bristol School’s imaginary, Romantic landscapes. Today, some of their work can still be seen on the top floor of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and in the Picture Room at Blaise Castle House Museum.

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