State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 73 Autumn 2004


John Barnes
Barry, Tennyson and the ‘Stately Virgins’

The Name of Tennyson appears among the British classics in the list of books which Redmond Barry in December 1853 asked the Victorian Agent-General in London to purchase for ‘the Melbourne Public Library, an Institution recently established in the colony of Victoria’. In April 1854 the first consignment of books, forwarded by the firm of J.J.Guillaume, Colonial Book Supplier, included a two-volume edition of Tennyson's Works, published in 1853. Gavan Duffy's memory was at fault in claiming in his autobiography, My Life in Two Hemispheres (1904), that when he arrived in Melbourne in 1855 the Public Library possessed only ‘a single poem of Tennyson's’. If he was thinking of In Memoriam, the mistake is understandable, as the that poem, published as a volume in 1850, was a spectacular success with the public, selling 60,000 copies by the end of the year, and bringing its author not only fame but the Poet Laureateship following the death of Wordsworth.
When Barry placed his order, Tennyson was already recognized as undoubtedly the leading poet of his generation. His popularity was such that he was able to live comfortably as a country squire on the proceeds of his poetry. At Farringford on the Isle of Wight he had not only a mansion and attached park but a farm of 150 acres, on which he kept a close eye and sometimes lent a hand. In her journal Emily Tennyson occasionally notes husband Alfred's labours on the farm. For instance, on 21 June 1862 :‘Mr Woolner comes. A. makes hay. I help a little’. On 30 June she records: ‘A. again out in the hay field at work nearly all day’. (Thomas Woolner, the sculptor, was one of several writers and artists who came to the Victorian gold-fields in 1852: at the time Tennyson had said that he would have gone ‘but for Mrs Tennyson’.)
Tennyson scholars have not found cause to pay attention to his farming activities or his relations with the tenants of the Home Farm. This aspect of his life may have some passing interest, however, for the readers of this Redmond Barry Number of the La Trobe Journal because of an unexpected - and non-literary - exchange between Tennyson and the President of the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library in 1862. At the end of November that year the portrait painter G.F. Watts (now probably best remembered for having married actress Ellen Terry when she was 17) was staying at Farringford. He painted a portrait of Emily and then began one of Alfred. She recorded in her journal for 1 December:
His portrait grows very grand to-day. Mr Watts takes his little bit of bread and cheese with us again to-day. A. writes to Sir Redmond Barry to thank him for the Exhibition catalogue & the seeds of Wattle & the magnificent maize & the Victorian wheat & oats beautiful to behold. A. says that the oats look like stately Virgins the colour and shapes are so beautiful. We go to see the wheat sown.
Disappointingly, there appears to be no further comment in her journal on what success Farmer Tennyson had with the prize-winning Victorian wheat.
Redmond Barry had been appointed President of the Commissioners of the Victorian Exhibition held in Melbourne in October 1861–February 1862. He then went to London with the exhibits for the International Exhibition, which opened in May 1862, with a grand procession and an ode specially composed by Tennyson for the choir of 4000 voices. Tennyson did not take part in the opening ceremony, but may have visited the Exhibition before it closed in November.
Of the Victorian exhibits the Penny Guide to the International Exhibition claimed that ‘a more extensive and varied collection has never before been sent from any British colony to Europe’. The dominating feature was ‘a gilded obelisk, representing the actual amount of gold found in the colony
since 1851’, but there were many other things to catch the eye: 50 bales of wool, varieties of native timber, wax models of fruit (Sir Redmond Barry exhibited an unnamed pear), and wines. And of course there were the cereals. The Catalogue had been printed in Melbourne, and a Supplement by J.G.Knight (the architect who acted as secretary for Victoria at the International Exhibition) added in London. Under the heading ‘Agriculture’ Knight directed attention to ‘the samples of wheat, oats, barley, and flour, which for quantity and weight per bushel are generally admitted to be the best in the Exhibition’. That was certainly the view of the London Times, which carried two enthusiastic articles about the Victorian exhibits, giving its readers some vital statistics of the prize-winning cereals, including the Tartarian oats which gave Tennyson such aesthetic pleasure.
The Exhibition was a great triumph for the colony which (as the Times on 19 September 1862 told its readers) received ‘more prize medals and “honourable mentions” than any other dependency of this country save India’. The judgment of the Times was all that Barry and his fellow-colonists could have hoped for: ‘Altogether, both for variety and importance, no collection in the Exhibition equals that of Victoria’. The Exhibition had shown the productivity and achievement of the colony to great advantage and, to make the most of the occasion in promoting business, when the display was dismantled samples of the exhibits were offered to various institutions and commercial enterprises. At least one private individual asked for samples. As J.G. Knight reported in the Melbourne Argus on 16 February 1863, ‘Alfred Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, who is also a farmer, sent to us for samples of our grain, in acknowledgement of which we received a charmingly characteristic note’.
The language of Tennyson's formal note of thanks is more restrained than that of his conversation with his wife:
Mr Alfred Tennyson presents his compliments to Sir Redmond Barry and begs to thanks him most sincerely for his kind gift of the Catalogues and acacia seeds and the magnificent samples of corn. The maize is the finest both as to size and colour which Mr Tennyson has ever seen, the wheat looks fed on sunshine and the oats if possible more beautiful than the wheat itself. The wheat is being sown here to-day. Mr Tennyson has great pleasure in requesting Sir Redmond's acceptance of samples of the produce of his own fields and only waits to know whither they are to be sent.
The note was preserved in a bound volume in which Barry collected letters that he had received from ‘Persons of Distinction in Europe’ to whom he had sent materials such as the Exhibition catalogue or requests for donations to the Library. There does not appear to be a record of what was the ‘produce of his own fields’ that Tennyson sent in exchange for the Victorian wheat and the ‘stately Virgins’.
[Tennyson's letter is included in The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson, 3 vols.ed. Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon Jr., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1982–1990. Emily Tennyson's journal is in the Tennyson Research Centre, Lincolnshire County Council. There are two published versions: Lady Tennyson's Journal, ed. James O. Hoge, University of Virginia Press, 1981; The Farringford Journal of Emily Tennyson 1853–1864, ed. Richard. J. Hutchings and Brian Hinton, Newport, Isle of Wight County Press, 1986. Barry's instructions to the Agent-General are reproduced in Early Book Purchases in the Melbourne Public Library, with introduction by Richard Overell, Monash University, Ancora Press, 1997.]
On his way to Philadelphia in 1876, as President of the Victorian Commissioners at the Philadelphia International Exhibition, Redmond Barry visited San Francisco, where he had his photograph taken at the studio of leading photographers, Bradley and Rulofson. Included among the photographs was one of his new top hat. The above illustration shows the mounted photograph, with an inscription on the reverse, which reads:
To Aegles with the compliments of the wearer. It in no degree resembles that misrepresentation which recalls to mind an antiquated piece of crockery the shape of which sufficiently indicates its use. The outline has been faithfully preserved without variation by the makers during 40 years, as has also been the style of garments worn by the owner made by Mr Magee formerly of St James Street succeeded in his business by Mr Atkins now of Albermarle St. The thoughtless unreasoning changes of fashion have not altered the conversation cue of either. The illustration of the former is presented with the compliments of the wearer to Aegles the genial commentator on the aesthetics of dress. Phil: May 18 1876
Aegles, who has not been identified, must have been an acquaintance at the exhibition with whom Barry felt sufficiently at ease to make a coy joke.
A bundle of photographs was sent to Barry's Melbourne solicitor, Henry Field Gurner, who showed them around. On hearing about the photograph of the new hat the ever-alert Melbourne Punch produced its own version (8 June 1876).