Westminster Abbey, by Thomas H Shepherd.
Journals 14.4. This is the conclusion of my article about Travels on the Continent and in England, by August Hermann Niemeyer, which details the German writer’s 1819 visit to the country he had always wanted to experience: England. One aspect I have found that is common to all such journals is a description of what we would now call the tourist sites, and they tend to be fairly repetitive from one writer to another, so I will just pick out a couple of examples. The first is Westminster Abbey:
I have however not been able to suppress the wish, which has been expressed by so many travellers, that, in a country of the greatest cleanliness and elegance, a place which is so much visited, might be kept cleaner, and secured from dust and cobwebs; and I have just as little been able to withhold my opinion that the dressed wax figures of the Queens Elizabeth, Mary, Ann, as well as of William Pitt, Chatham, and Nelson, which stand here in niches in some of the chapels, would be far more appropriately placed in any collection of curiosities, or in the British Museum.
The wax figures Niemeyer refers to were funeral effigies, a practice that goes back to the Fourteenth Century. Originally for a royal funeral, the king or queen’s embalmed body was carried in procession on an open bier, but from the time of Edward II onwards the body was laid in a coffin and an effigy was used instead. The earliest examples were wooden, but later wax was used to achieve a realistic likeness of the royal visage. Queen Elizabeth’s which Niemeyer mentions, is a resoration made in 1760. The original disintegrated in the years following her death.
The next quote concerns Carlton House, where Niemeyer found treasures taken from the British Empire:
Above all, as might easily be expected, what has been brought from the East Indies, that is to say, much of the incalculable treasures which became a booty of the English, in the year 1792 after the taking of Scringapatam where Tippoo Saib lost both his life and empire, hold a distinguished place. The Chair of the Golden Throne of the last King of Candy, Rajah Sindah, forms a large sun with innumerable rays broken by jewels of a very rare size. His throne is shewn as the most modern monument of British conquests in India.
When I see myself surrounded here by all these trophies, which a spiritual, far more than a physical superiority, but still more an unbounded lust of possession and control, than any just pretension, has here collected, how is it possible not to be induced to ask what gave Europeans, or, to speak more accurately, what gave a trading company the right of overturning kingdoms in a foreign part of the world; and subjecting nations to their sway, who certainly would never have thought of disturbing the tranquillity of a distant insular empire?
Niemeyer visited a wide variety of notable buildings, including schools, religious institutions and universities. At those moments he was generally among the privileged classes, particularly when visiting the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, but he did not shut his eyes to the other side of English society at the time.
Indeed, when we walk around the principal environs of London; when, on Sundays particularly, we see ourselves surrounded with such a number of people, in whose countenances and deportment, health, ease, spiritual cultivation, honesty, security in feeling of liberty, nobility of mind and contentment, are so visibly imprinted, scarcely can we be induced to believe that, in the circumference of the very same town, a countless number of the most despicable human beings, a depraved class of people, are to be met with, in whom even the last traces of all sense of morality are extinguished. But at the same time we cannot suppress a deep feeling of compassion, in observing how many of them, without it being their own fault, appear to have been devoted to crime from their birth, ere they could sink so deeply.
Niemeyer was able to enjoy several theatrical performances during his time in England, mainly of Shakespeare plays. “Enjoy” might not be quite the right word though.
Still, however, I could not participate in that unconditional admiration of the English theatre, with which I found many a German, who was not unacquainted with the merits of our performers, penetrated. The plain dialogue or monologue often approached a lesson learnt by heart, and appeared recited in measured time. In expression of passion, they at least far exceeded the limits which we consider the extreme points to which an actor can go; and the conclusion was frequently made with those favourite shrieks or piercing cries, which were always rewarded with a clamorous applause. Even the prejudicial sarcasms of Richard III. often excited, particularly upon Kean’s withdrawing himself, after the fashionable manner, rather laughter than disgust.
Niemeyer spent a total of two months in England, packing in a wealth of experiences during that time. An experience that he did not particularly welcome was the return journey, as the sea crossing took a full week. His book ends with a selection of quotes from his journal, detailing his return journey, some of which I include here as examples of his wistful, melancholy, and at times nauseous final days of travel:
Harwich, 27th July, 1819.— The tumult of the metropolis is silenced. We have been borne, as it were, upon wings, fifteen German miles in a rather dark night. I am now once more upon the coast of that country which, a short time ago, lay before me enveloped in a mist, and which now floats before my eyes like a magnificent and brilliant picture. For a long time to come, I shall have no occasion to sigh for fresh impressions, and may the more tranquilly reflect upon all that I have seen and heard. If we should be enabled, upon our landing upon the shores of another world, after our last journey in this, to carry with us as lively recollections of all that the earth has afforded us, we shall there too scarce stand in need of new matter to occupy our minds; and when our curiosity has been satisfied, gratitude and admiration will continue to warm our hearts, and to strengthen our memory…
Before I took leave of my room, I cast another glance upon the noble Thames, and the incessant bustle which prevails upon it. My amiable hostess appeared unwilling to let me leave her. Her daughter entreated me to play another German air upon her piano, the execution of which appeared to afford her great pleasure…
July 30. Almost every body is sea-sick. No one feels a desire of entering into conversation. The hours, which lately passed as minutes, we wish we could accelerate with wings. They creep on so slowly, that we are frightened when we look at the watch, and hold it to our ears, in doubt whether it may not have stopped. Sleep appears to be the only friend of those that are well; it deserts the sick like a false friend.
After a storm at sea, Niemeyer finally arrived back on land on 3rd August. He was 64 years old at the time of his visit to England. He died 9 years later, in 1828, after a long and distinguished academic career.
Westminster Abbey, by Thomas H Shepherd.
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