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Exhibitions unveil the ridiculous side of the Romantics 

English Literature

Publish date: May 26, 2022

Two new exhibitions in the Lake District will explore the ridiculous side of some of the nation’s best known Romantic poets.

Dr Andrew McInnes, Reader in English Literature at Edge Hill University, has created Ridiculous Romantic Portraits at Wordsworth Grasmere (open from 7th June until 17th July) and Ridiculous Romantic Landscapes at Windermere Jetty Museum (open from 6th June until 5th September). 

Both exhibitions have been developed together with North West school students, from Rainford High in Merseyside and St Mary’s Catholic High School in Greater Manchester. 

The Ridiculous Romantic Portraits exhibition at Wordsworth Grasmere responds to portraits of Romantic poets and artists, from William and Dorothy Wordsworth to lesser-known figures like Charlotte Smith and James Gillray. Students from St Mary’s Catholic High School have created an array of weird and wonderful artworks showing the Romantics in a new light. 

At Windermere Jetty Museum The Ridiculous Romantic Landscapes display is perfectly placed, asking what draws tourists, nature lovers, and locals to visit awe-inspiring locations while overlooking the breath-taking Windermere. Visitors will be able to explore the funny side of our relationship with the natural world focusing on unexpected celebrations of city life, complaints about the countryside, and sightings of some literary mermaids. 

Windermere Jetty Museum Photograph: Tom Arran
Wordsworth Grasmere. Photograph: Gareth Gardner
Photograph: Phil Tragen

Dr McInnes said: “The Lake District has been a popular tourist destination since the eighteenth century, when visitors were drawn here in search of the sublime. Looking at the wonder of the Lake District, with its huge lakes and towering mountains, gives us an inkling of the universe’s enormous size, filling us with ecstasy. 

“But the sublime has been criticised for encouraging a selfish or egotistical response to nature. The exhibitions show the ridiculous as the flipside of the sublime; delighting in failure and misunderstanding, emphasising our individual littleness, and bringing us together in shared laughter.” 

The exhibitions aim to show a different way of thinking about the natural world and Romanticism, focusing on bringing people together in joy rather than the more traditional view of the melancholic, lonely writer.  

Dr Rita Dashwood, postdoctoral fellow on the project, said: “Even Wordsworth worked closely with his sister and wife. All the Romantic poets had rich private lives filled with people and laughter. This is mirrored in the work of the students, who produced some incredible artworks by coming together and discussing Romantic writers and landscapes collectively.” 

Students thought of creative ways to emphasise the silly side of Romantic depictions of nature and society. The amazing artworks they have created will be on display at both exhibitions. 

Katie, a student at Rainford High said: “Delving deeper into the Romantic literary canon with Andy has completely enthralled me. The project has been extremely helpful during my own studies of the Romantics at A Level. The quirky aspects of the poets that I have learnt about through this opportunity has added a humorous element to the serious societal commentaries of the Romantics.” 

Sophie Terrett, Collection Curator for Windermere Jetty Museum said: “It was wonderful to welcome the students from Rainford High School and explore new ways to see both the collection and the awe-inspiring landscape of Windermere. The display showcases their unique and playful perspectives on the question of how nature makes us feel, and the beautiful views of the lake at Windermere Jetty Museum make it the perfect place to do it.” 

George, a student at St Mary’s Catholic High School, said: “Visiting Wordsworth Grasmere felt like stepping into the past, especially the exhibition of Dove Cottage. The cottage and museum gave me a real taste of what it was like to be alive at such a different time in history. I’m extremely excited to contribute to the exhibit with my own interpretation of some of the most famous authors of that time.” 

Jeff Cowton, Principal Curator & Head of Learning at Wordsworth Grasmere said: “This is a fresh, even irreverent perspective on some of the now established icons of the Romantic period. The students’ imaginations help us see them and their works in a new light.” 

The Arts and Humanities Research Council funded the Romantic Ridiculous project created by Dr McInnes, bringing together curators from the Cumbria Museum Consortium, school students and the public to celebrate art and poetry.  

Dr Andrew McInnes and Dr Rita Dashwood will also be exploring the ridiculous side of the Romantics at an online event at Wordsworth Grasmere on Wednesday 8 June. Book a place here: https://wordsworth.org.uk/blog/events/ridiculous-romantics/.