Everywhere you go on the Isle of Wight you’ll spot plenty of Blue Plaques celebrating the many famous writers and artists who have lived or worked here.
When Queen Victoria set up home at Osborne House, fashionable and literary society quickly discovered the Island’s charms. Artists, writers, poets and philosophers – a Who’s Who of 19th and 20th century celebrities like Tennyson, Dickens, Swinburne, Keats, DH Lawrence, Auden, Turner, Moreland and Virginia Woolf all came here.
“Is there no-one who is commonplace here? Is everybody either a poet, or a genius, or peculiar in some way?” exclaimed one incredulous visitor.
The Island worked a special magic to inspire some of our greatest writers, poets and artists. Those Victorians who discovered the Island’s unique charms were inspired by the peace and beauty of its wild landscape. Here they could retreat into fantasy. Even a short stay had a profound impact on their writing and painting, inspiring some of their best work.
Try a spot of ‘Blue Plaque hunting’ and you can follow in the footsteps of these literary and artistic stars. Details of some Blue Plaques are at isle-of-wightmemorials.org.uk.
New for 2012, Shanklin Chine, features an exhibition of reproduction sketches by JMW Turner. Regarded as England’s greatest artist (the Turner Prize is named in his honour), he visited in 1795 and 1827, leaving a valuable record of the Island before the Victorian tourist boom. This summer-long exhibition – which also celebrates the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – features Turner’s Isle of Wight Landscapes and follows his journey around the Island from his sketchbook of 1795. Appropriately, one of his sketches is the Discovery of Shanklin Chine.
Victorian literary figures – among them, George Eliot, Macaulay, Dickens and Longfellow – were great admirers of the Chine. Jane Austen visited in June 1813 and declared it to be ‘lovely’. In 1868, poet and author of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was also captivated by Shanklin when he stayed at the ‘lovely little thatch-roof Crab Inn, all covered in ivy and extremely desirable’.
John Keats spent the summer of 1819 in Shanklin. One of the greatest of the Romantic poets, he wrote Endymion (with the famous opening line, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’) while gazing at Carisbrooke. The poet’s stay is remembered today by Keats Green, Keats Inn and Keats Cottage.
This year sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, who wrote part of David Copperfield while staying at Winterbourne in Bonchurch in 1849. Describing Bonchurch as the ‘prettiest place I ever saw in my life’, Dickens is said to have based the characters of Mr Dick and Miss Havisham on local people.
Bonchurch also attracted a glittering colony of writers and artists, including poet Algernon Swinburne who lived at East Dene. On his death in 1909, this ‘last of the great Victorians’ was buried in St Boniface churchyard. In 1910, the poet and author Thomas Hardy wrote A Singer Asleep whilst sitting beside his grave.
Many artists, including Clarkson Stanfield, Thomas Rowbotham and Edward Cooke, were entranced by Bonchurch.
Thomas Macaulay wrote part of his History of England while at Madeira Hall, while author of The Blue Lagoon, Henry de Vere Stacpoole, gave the pond to the village in memory of his wife.
Alfred Lord Tennyson also stayed in Bonchurch before settling with wife Emily at Farringford, Freshwater. They lived there for 39 years and Tennyson wrote some of his best-loved works here, including Maud, Idylls of the King, Charge of the Light Brigade and Crossing the Bar. Dressed in his famous hat and cloak, Tennyson would wander across Freshwater’s High Down, later re-named Tennyson Down in his honour.
Tennyson entertained the greatest writers and Victorian celebrities of the day at Farringford. Many, including George Frederic Watts, dubbed ‘England’s Michelangelo’, returned to buy their own homes nearby. Charles Darwin, who started writing On the Origin of the Species at Shanklin, was a regular guest at Farringford.
Tennyson’s neighbour, pioneer Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, built a studio and dark room to capture famous people on film when they visited Farringford. Some of her original prints can be seen in the Dimbola Museum and Galleries.
Mrs Cameron’s home at Dimbola attracted a smart, artistic set, including the author of Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray, the poet Robert Browning, and Queen Victoria’s drawing master and inventor of the limerick, Edward Lear.
Both Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and the young Alice Liddell, who inspired Alice in Wonderland, also visited Dimbola. Carroll wrote Hunting of the Snark after holidaying in Sandown.
Countless other literary giants have discovered the Island’s charms, among them William Wordsworth, George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, WH Auden, John Betjeman, Robert Graves, novelist and playwright JB Priestley, and DH Lawrence, whose novel The Trespasser is set in Freshwater.