Friday, May 20, 2011

Browning’s friend Domett

Alfred Domett, a literary man who emigrated to New Zealand and became its prime minister for a short time, was born two centuries ago today. His diary, though not well known, is often quoted as a source of information about his friend, the much more famous poet Robert Browning, and other artists of the time.

Domett was born in Camberwell, Surrey, on 20 May 1811. He studied at St John’s College, Cambridge, but did not finish his degree. After travelling in North America and the West Indies, he returned to study law at Middle Temple before being called to the bar in 1841. He published several volumes of poetry during this period, and contributed to Blackwood’s Magazine. He was a friend of Robert Browning, who wrote a poem (Waring) about him.

In 1842, Domett emigrated to New Zealand where he had purchased some land, and took up farming. He was invited to enter politics after working for a while as editor of the Nelson Examiner. He rose rapidly, being appointed Colonial Secretary for New Munster in 1848, Secretary for the Colony in 1851, and became Prime Minister in 1862 (although he only served in this office for a little over a year). During the rest of the 1860s, he was Secretary for Lands and Registrar-general of lands. He also established the General Assembly Library.

Domett returned to England in 1871 with his wife, Mary George, a widowed schoolteacher whom he had married in 1856. Once back in London he re-established his friendship with Browning, and pursued his literary interests, including publishing more poems, one of which was Ranolf and Amohia. He died in 1887. There is not much biographical information about him available on the internet, though Wikipedia has a short entry, and the ONDB a longer one (subscription or library card log in required).

Domett certainly kept a diary for some periods of his life, and the extant volumes are kept by the British Library. None of this material, though, was published until 1953 when Oxford University Press brought out The Diary of Alfred Domett, 1872-1885, edited by E A Horsman. Another volume appeared two years later, published by University of Western Ontario: The Canadian Journal of Alfred Domett: being an extract from a journal of a tour in Canada, the United States and Jamaica, 1833-1835. This was also edited by Horsman, as well as by Lillian Rea Benson who appears to have been largely responsible for unearthing the travel diary.

Here are a few extracts from The Diary of Alfred Domett, 1872-1885, all to be found on The Victorian Web, except the one for 30 March 1876 which can be found at the Armstrong Browning Library website.

1 April 1873
‘[Thomas] Thornycroft [sculptor of the group representing Agriculture, flanking the Albert Monument, among others] shewed us his studio. His large group of Boadicea with her daughters beside her driving her chariot into battle, with the expression of one of the faces, looking forth into the ‘hurly-burly’ with a kind of daring awe, seemed very fine. Pity they don’t find a place for the group on the top of one of our tame abortive-looking park porticoes or arches not very ‘triumphal’. We saw too the plaister model of his group for a new drinking-fountain in Park Lane; the poet-figures, Shakespeare, Milton & Chaucer by Thornycroft Senr., the gilded Fame surmounting it, by his son.’

10 May 1873
‘Called on the Thornycrofts, Wilton Place. Found Mr T at work on a model of the horse for an equestrian statue of Lord Mayo he had been commissioned to make for Calcutta. He was modelling his horse without sketch or other original as a guide. Said he had made so many he did not require any. When he wanted to study a horse, he used to go & walk in the Park, Rotten Row, where his living models were in plenty.

He never exhibits at the Royal Academy, nor sends his works there as he does not belong to it. Does not care to belong to the Academy now though when he was young it would have been of use to him.

Talking with Mrs Thornycroft and praising her beautiful and simple statues of the Queen’s children she said the Queen had had copies of them made to send to several of the Royal Families of Europe. . .’

29 October 1873
‘[John Henry Foley - designer of the Albert Memorial] was very kind and affable and shewed us through his studio. The model of the Statue of Prince Albert for The Hyde Park monument was there. He says when the Queen came to see it, she liked the expression of the face so much that she desired it might not even be touched by him any further, and so, though he had not considered it quite finished he had complied with her request and left it as it was. The statue, to be in bronze gilt, had been so long in execution, because in the hurry to get it done, the molten metal had been poured into the mould before the latter was thoroughly dry, so that the generated steam had exploded and destroyed it. Thus to save a week, they had lost 6 months at least for the extra work required to make a second mould.’

30 March 1876
‘[Alf - Domett’s son] and I going to R Curling’s house to dinner in Princess square, as we were crossing Hereford St, heard someone calling loudy ‘Domett!’ Turned, and Browning came rushing up. Alf’s being a Royal Academy student, made us ask how ‘Pen’ [Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barret Browning only child] was getting on.

‘He has had a wonderful success!’ said Browning. He brought over with him at Xmas a ‘study’ of a priest reading a book. Millais had seen the picture and pronounced ‘the drawing perfect.’

Lehmann [Frederick Lehmann, a wealthy industrialist] expressed a desire to purchase it and offered Pen 150 guineas for it. Pen said ‘It was absurd - it could not be worth so much!’ that he did not wish to sell it, knowing its defects. The other persisted in his offer. ‘Let me wait another year and then I will paint you a picture if you like and if I can,’ said Pen. ‘Then your price will probably be beyond me’ replied Lehmann, ‘I must have this one.’ Browning said Pen was ‘quite wise’ about it and still declined to take so much money, until at last he (Browning) said ‘Pen, don't be a fool - take it as it is offered.’ Then he consented but stipulated that it should not be exhibited - not on account of misgivings as to its merit, whatever he may have entertained, but because the book the priest was represented as reading was a very uncanonical one indeed - certain notorious memoirs of a French Madame - and Pen did not wish to give offence to the many who ‘reverenced priests.’

29 May 1877
‘Went to London Library. A meeting of members was being held up-stairs . . . I stood by the door while Gladstone was speaking near the fire place. Gladstone, a dusky-complexioned spare middle-sized man, with grey hair, thin and straggling; eyes very black and rather bright; earnest expression; with a sort of approach to a slouch in his manner and bearing. He spoke fluently but not at all rapidly; sentences rather winding and long drawn out like honey you must twist the spoon to break off. When he had spoken, an old benevolent looking aquiline-nosed stooping man (the Archbishop of Dublin) made a few remarks, in the course of which, Gladstone quietly took his hat and sloped out stealing close by me to the door.’

5 June 1877
‘Being at the Zoological Gardens, I looked in at the Lecture Room. Huxley was lecturing. A dark-complexioned man, with deepset eyes, prominent forehead and turned-up nose, thick rather coarse hair slightly streaked with grey, parted on one side, and brushed back from his forehead in the middle; lower part of the cheeks a little flabby making a sort of fold overarching the mouth; lips loose and mouth working; fidgety, rather excitable in manner, passing the back of his hand across his nose nervously, but as if from habit, not in the least from diffidence. He spoke in a low conversational tone; taking a snake from a box, handling and describing it; explaining some of the motions of its head and body by pawing with his hand in the air.’

3 May 1883
‘At Edinburgh for my first time! A wonderful place with all that a town should have, in compactness and completeness unmatched - a perfect ideal of a city! Romantic site of hill and vale - fine buildings and monuments mediaeval and modern; palace and castle; antiquated gloomy wynds and closes and lofty houses towering up like cliffs, dotted with windows like loopholes; all teeming with associations, historical, poetical, scientific - national and individual - heroic, tragic, comic, quaint, terrible or humorous; all in their appropriate places, disposed like a scene in a theatre - all as it were within a space to be seen almost at a glance! . . .’

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