– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

exhibition archive – Robert Browning

This article, written by the Fellow Librarian, Dr Seamus Perry, was originally posted on the Balliol Archives & Manuscripts website. It documents an exhibition at St Cross Church in September-October 2012.

Browning at Balliol
A Bicentenary Exhibition
29 September – 6 October 2012










Balliol College is honoured to care for one of the most distinguished collections of Browning material. Robert Browning (1812 – 1889) is one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century, whose masterpieces include Men and Women and The Ring and the Book. A friend and admirer of Jowett, he was elected the first Honorary Fellow of Balliol in 1867.

The College’s Browning collection was begun before his death: the distinguished portrait by his son, Pen, was presented to the College in 1886. The manuscripts of most of his later writings were bequeathed to the College by wish of the poet: there are six stout volumes, handsomely bound in brown Morocco and bearing the poet’s coat of arms. (A seventh volume, containing Asolando, was retained by Pen and sold after his death to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.)

Several important items were subsequently presented by the family, including the Old Yellow Book and a portrait of Guido Franceschini once owned by the poet, which were given by Pen, and the ring and Browning’s academic gown, given by Pen’s widow Fannie.

The collection grew through donations of correspondence, photographs, and various relics by Mrs. Katharine Bronson, Lady Berwick, Miss Mabel Purefoy FitzGerald, Sir William and Lady Ashley, Rev. A.J. Whyte, and a number of other generous benefactors. An important collection of books was given by Miss F.C. Carey in 1921. The bibliographer T.J. Wise gave the Library a collection of letters by and about Browning in 1926; and Wise’s widow gifted to Balliol the distinguished white marble bust, based on a plaster original by Pen, in 1937. (Wise, not always trustworthy, claimed that his bust was the version owned by the poet.)

Jowett’s personal library, which was bequeathed to the College, contains numerous presentation copies inscribed by the poet.

This exhibition was curated by Michael Meredith, Seamus Perry, and Stephen Hebron.



1. Photograph of Robert Browning Snr.

Robert Browning’s father was a clerk in the Bank of England, whose interests lay in antiquarian scholar­ship. He was also a gifted artist and caricaturist. This photograph was taken when he was living in Paris c.1860. The manuscript opposite is of a poem written by his son for a friend.

2. Sketch of a polar bear by Robert Browning Snr.

This sketch, with its simple verse, was drawn for his grandson Pen Browning. [Eton College Library]

3. Nathaniel Lee, Caesar Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI, London, 1736. Robert Browning’s copy.

There is a note in Browning’s hand ‘This was the first play I ever read.’ Browning’s interest in the stilted eighteenth-century English drama proved a handicap when he started writing plays of his own.

4. Francis Quarles, Emblemes, London, [1710?]. Robert Browning’s copy.

Given to Browning when he was a child by his mother, who has inscribed his name on the front end-paper. The book is well-thumbed and was obviously read with the help of his father, who has written a few explanatory notes for the young boy. Quarles would become a favourite 17th century poet of Browning’s and he had six copies of his works in his library.

5. Daniello Bartoli, De’ Simboli trasportati al morale, Londra, [n.d.], Robert Browning’s copy.

This book, edited by his Italian teacher Angelo Cerutti, was taken by Browning to Italy on his first visit there in 1838. He wrote ‘How they brought the Good News’ and ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’ in pencil inside the front cover, but later erased them. During the long sea voyage Browning practised his Italian grammar and conversation on the later pages.


6. Engraving of Robert Browning, c.1836.

Elizabeth Barrett had a copy of this engraving by James Charles Armytage pinned on the wall of her room in Wimpole Street. It comes from R.H. Horne’s New Spirit of the Age. [Eton College Library]

7. Robert Browning, Strafford: An Historical Tragedy, Longman, Rees, 1837, 2 copies.

Browning’s first play was produced at Covent Garden in May 1837 and ran for only five performances. The cast-list shows William Charles Macready playing Strafford and Helen Faucit as Lady Carlisle. Both were excellent. The play was too wordy and some of the minor characters poor, so it proved only a moderate success. [1 copy Eton College Library]

8. Helena Faucit Martin, On Rosalind, [Edinburgh], 1884, proof.

Helen Faucit not only acted in Strafford, but also in Browning’s A Blot in the ’Scutcheon. She gave up her glittering stage career when she married Sir Theodore Martin. Towards the end of their lives she and Browning renewed their friendship, and he visited the Martins in their Welsh home several times. Lady Martin sent Browning this copy of what was to become a chapter in her On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters (1887). With a carte de visite of Helen Faucit, ?1850s [Eton College Library].

9. Robert Browning, Bells and Pomegranates, No. iii – Dramatic Lyrics, Edward Moxon, 1842, 2 copies.

These cheap pamphlets, printed in double columns, established Browning’s reputation as a promising poet. One copy is open at his famous dramatic monologue ‘My Last Duchess’, which was originally paired with another poem and titled ‘Italy’. [1 copy Eton College Library]


10. Gold Ring, Italian, c.1850.

This ring was given to Robert Browning by Isa Blagden in 1858. On its bezel are the words ‘Vis Mea’ (‘My Strength’). It was given to Balliol by Fannie Barrett Browning, the poet’s daughter-in-law, who believed it to have been made by Castellani in Rome and that it was the one mentioned by Browning in the opening lines of The Ring and the Book. Modern scholarship refutes this. The ring in the poem is now believed to be imaginary, based on one Browning saw in the Castellani workshops.

11. ‘The Old Yellow Book’.

This is the vellum-backed book Browning bought at the flea market in Piazza San Lorenzo, Florence, containing maunuscript and printed documents relating to the trial of Count Guido Franceschini for the murder of his young wife in 1698. Browning used it as the main source of The Ring and the Book, his ‘Roman Murder Story.’

12. Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book, Smith, Elder, 1868 – 9, 4 vols.

A presentation copy from Browning to Benjamin Jowett. The Ring and the Book was published, one volume a month, between November 1868 and February 1869. The facts of the case are presented ten different ways during the course of the poem, with the Pope giving a judgment thought to be akin to Browning’s own.

13. Anonymous watercolour of Guido Franceschini on his way to execution, 1698.

This sketch was sent to Browning by a stranger who found it among a bundle of drawings he bought at a sale in England. It shows Count Guido wearing the clothes in which he helped to commit the murder of his wife and her parents. Browning portrays Guido as a heartless villain. In real life he was a dull, hard-working man, mocked in Arezzo as a cuckold. He also appears younger in this portrait than Browning makes him in the poem.

14. Silver scudo of Pope Innocent XII, 1696

This portrait is of the Pope who refused Guido clemency and a pardon, depicted by Browning as just and honorable. In fact his decision was based on political considerations and was legally wrong.


15. Robert Browning, Balaustion’s Adventure, manuscript, 1871.

This is a corrected fair copy prepared for the printer by Browning, and the only manuscript of this poem, a transcript of Euripides’ Alcestis, to survive. Browning’s custom was to destroy all his working papers, so no drafts exist. Markings by the compositor appear on many pages.

16. Robert Browning, Parleyings with People of Importance in their Day, manuscript, 1887.

The heavy correction in this passage from ‘Parleying with Gerard De Lairesse’ demonstrates the care Browning took with his writing, right up to the time he gave the manuscript to the printer. Additions, deletions, major and minor alterations appear even on this fair copy manuscript.

17. Gustave Natorp, medallion of Robert Browning, 1888.

Gustave Natorp was a Frenchman, friend of Auguste Rodin whose work he was instrumental in introduc­ing to England. He became a friend of Browning in the 1880s, and the poet agreed to sit (on numerous occasions) for this medallion. It exits in two sizes, the larger being exhibited at the Royal Academy, where it was praised for its verisimilitude. The smaller version was intended as a replica. This one was given to Balliol by the former librarian, Vincent Quinn.


18. Hope End, near Ledbury, Herefordshire, pencil drawing.

Hope End was Elizabeth’s childhood home. Built in 1809 in oriental style for Edward Moulton-Barrett, it was in the centre of a large estate. Elizabeth, her two sisters and eight brothers led an idyllic existence, which she partly describes in Aurora Leigh. Later her father suffered financial losses, sold the house and moved to 50, Wimpole Street, London.

19. Sarianna Browning’s photograph album, c.1858 – 80.

The album is open at a photograph of Elizabeth with her son Robert Barrett (Pen) Browning aged twelve with ringlets. Opposite is her sister Arabella who remained unmarried, earning her father’s approval and devoting her life to charitable works.

20. Plautus, Titus Maccius, Comoediae, Amsterdam, 1619, Tacitus, Caius Cornelius, Opera, Amsterdam, 1623.

These two small Roman texts, bound identically in red, belonged to Elizabeth. After her marriage she and Robert joined their collections of books together, and Elizabeth has written their joint names on the title-page of each one. Thereafter they formed part of the library at Casa Guidi .

21. [Elizabeth Barrett Barrett], Prometheus Bound, Valpy, 1833, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Greek Christian Poets and The English Poets, Chapman and Hall, 1863, presentation copy to Benjamin Jowett from Robert Browning.

Elizabeth Barrett loved Greek and was tutored at home by H.S.Boyd. Her translation of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound was her earliest mature work. About the same time she wrote two essays, on the Greek Christian poets and the English poets, which remained unpublished until Robert Browning issued them posthumously, two years after Elizabeth’s death.

22. Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Poems, Moxon, 1844, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Poems before Congress, Chapman and Hall, 1860.

Two of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most famous books. In one of the 1844 poems she praised Robert Browning, which brought him to Wimpole Street and the start of their romance. Poems before Congress contains political poems supporting the Italian struggle against the Austrians during the Risorgimento. It made her famous in Italy and several of the poems were translated immediately into Italian.

23. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Two Poems, Chapman and Hall, 1854.

This is the only joint publication by Robert and Elizabeth. It was produced for a Bazaar organised by Arabella Moulton-Barrett for the Ragged Schools of London. [Eton College Library]


24. Robert Browning, autograph letter signed to Dr Robert Scott, 21 October, 1867.

Accepting an Honorary Fellowship (the first in Balliol’s history), Browning replies to the Master, Robert Scott, ‘I must know more intimately than you can how little worthy I am of such an honour, ‒ you hardly can set the value of that honour, you who give, as I who take it.’

25. Pen Browning, autograph letter signed to his father, [9 June 1870].

Browning wanted his son Pen to spend his university career at Balliol. Unfortunately the young man failed to satisfy the college’s requirements, so went to Christ Church instead. In this letter, at the end of his first year, Pen discusses his progress in his examinations. In spite of his optimism he failed, left Oxford and became an artist. [Eton College Library]

26. John Farmer, Balliol Songs, [Oxford], 1888, presentation copy from Farmer to Browning.

John Farmer, admirer and friend of Richard Wagner, was in charge of Balliol music from 1885 to 1900. He set some of Browning’s verses from the Epilogue to Ferishtah’s Fancies to music as the first Balliol Song, ‘Heroes’. [Eton College Library]

27. Photograph of a plan of Robert Browning’s rooms in Balliol.

When Browning was made an Honorary Fellow of the college, he was given a set of rooms for his own use. He made this drawing when about to furnish them. Pen’s early departure from the university and his infrequent visits meant that Browning gave them up after a few years. [Bodleian Libraries, Oxford]

28. Henry Taunt, Photograph of the Vice-Chancellor’s procession, Balliol, 30 June, 1886.

In 1886 Benjamin Jowett completed his four-year term as Vice-Chancellor. Browning went to Oxford for the Commemoration ceremonies, which included luncheon in Balliol Hall. On this occasion Browning would have seen his portrait painted by Pen, which had been hung in the Hall three months before. [Oxfordshire County Council, Oxfordshire History Centre]


29. Benjamin Jowett’s guest book.

The friendship between Browning and Jowett meant that Browning was sometimes invited to stay in the Master’s Lodgings. Usually this was for official university or college activities. On such occasions Jowett would suggest that Browning extended his stay, on one occasion for a week. Browning’s signature appears frequently in the Master’s guest book.

30. Browning’s possessions.

Among relics of the poet in the Balliol library are a handkerchief, cravat, collar, gloves, sugar-tongs and candle-holder. They demonstrate the veneration Browning was accorded towards the end of his life, when Furnivall’s Browning Society was in full swing.

31. Browning’s leather wallet.

This was used by Browning on his last visit to Italy in 1889. It still contains the receipts from the Venice post-office for the corrected proofs of Asolando, which Browning had sent by registered mail to London.

32. Photograph of Browning’s bedroom in Asolo, 1889.

During September and October 1889 Browning was the guest of the American Katharine Bronson in Asolo. Mrs Bronson arranged rooms for him in the main street with Nina Tabacchi. This photograph was almost certainly taken after his departure, when Signora Tabacchi made a good trade in selling memen­toes such as ‘Browning’s pen’ to gullible tourists.

33. Browning’s D.C.L. gown.

Browning was given his honorary doctorate at the 1882 Encaenia. He also wore the gown, slightly incongruously, at a dinner given by Lord Salisbury for the Shah of Persia. He was painted wearing it, holding the Old Yellow Book, by his son Pen, a portrait now at Balliol. Pen’s bust of his father dates from 1886 and shows the influence of Rodin, under whom Pen had been studying in Paris.


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