Sunday, 18 May 2014

A Tour of the Isle of Wight, 1790

There are any number of "me too" 19th century travelogues of the Isle of Wight, but I just ran into two late 18th century ones that give a slightly different perspective: John Hassell's 1790 Tour of the Isle of Wight, and Charles Tomkins' 1796 A Tour to the Isle of Wight.

The books are superficially similar in format, springing from a trend at the time for the Isle of Wight as a venue for 'picturesque tourism' (see Stewart Abbott's 2006 PhD thesis The Isle of Wight, c. 1750-1840: Aspects of Viewing,Recording and Consumption). The authors of both were artists who went on a tour starting from London, and begin with accounts of how they got to the Island - but they differ in style. John Hassell focuses strongly on his personal impressions of the places he visited; in contrast, Charles Tomkins is rather impersonal, and devotes a lot of space to recycled historical anecdote. As artists, their topic interest differs too: Hassell favours landscapes, and Tomkins favours churches and other buildings. Consequently, I found Hassell's account far more engaging in both treatment and topic. Nevertheless, both books are worth a look, and the many plates will be of interest to fans of historical topography.

Hassell was 23, and comes across as young and enthusiastic. He comments on the prettiness of Newport women, and on what attracted him about the light and scenery to draw particular scenes. He's generally interested in seeing things going on: for instance, he observes the sand and clay mining in Alum Bay, and visits stately homes and admires the paintings. He not only explores the land, but also takes a two-day sailing tour to look at the scenery from offshore. His pictures are a little naive in style, and the colouring of the prints is pretty strange: if they seem obtrusive in the 200-year-old copy scanned by Google, they must have been outright garish when the book was new, and the contemporary review in Tobias Smollett's The Critical Review, Or, Annals of Literature says as much:
The tinted etchings, though these before us are, on the whole, well executed, are deformed by the tint: a glaring glaring purple, a green glow,, or a deep yellow hue, disguises instead of illustrating nature.
Smollett criticises the parts of the book where Hassell tries to get learned outside his specialism, considering him unequipped ...
In the houses, he describes the paintings with much feeling and enthusiasm, and sometimes condescends to instruct us as an antiquarian and a naturalist; but in these departments, particularly the last, his success is not very considerable. He is evidently unacquainted with the subject, and he ought to have avoided such disquisitions.
... but is overall favourable about the work:
On the whole, however, though little errors occasionally appear, the work is very entertaining. Indeed, natural objects described with fidelity and elegance will always interest and attract the reader, not rendered fastidious by fashion or affected refinement.
- The Critical Review, Or, Annals of Literature, Tobias Smollett, pub. W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1791, pages 184-189.
I wouldn't disagree; A Tour of the Isle of Wight is a fresh and very personal account, not cluttered by retreads of antiquarian erudition.

Click any image to enlarge.

View inland from Yarmouth

View inland to downs from Freshwater Gate

Coastal arch at Freshwater
The Needles
The cliffs of Alum Bay
Scenery near Afton Down
Blackgang Chine
The Undercliff
Scenery near Shanklin
Foot of Luccombe Chine
Shanklin Chine
Cascade at Shanklin Chine
"Queen Bower", near Newchurch
vertical scale of the hill considerably exaggerated
Carisbrooke Castle
Carisbrooke Castle gate

Shore at Osborne
Shalfleet Lake - Hassell admits to exaggerating the proportions
"Gurnet Bay" (Gurnard)
Unidentified scene
Hassell visits Stonehenge on the way home
  • Tour of the Isle of Wight, John Hassell, printed by John Jarvis ; for Thomas Hookham, London, 1790: Volume 1 Internet Archive tourislewightdr00hassgoog, Volume 2 Google Books SYUuAAAAMAAJ).
I'll look at the Tomkins book shortly.

- Ray


  1. This is a wonderful book to read in the original print. I have both volumes and find them a real treasure.

  2. It's my favourite IoW travelogue from around that era; Hassell's enthusiasm makes him very readable.