Google Earth: with a few clicks, we’re ‘holidaying’ anywhere in the world without ever leaving home – the ultimate in ‘armchair’ travel. While the technology is relatively new the concept certainly isn’t, and for ages past the human race have told stories which can transport them to far away lands without the hassle of passports, seasickness, or spending a fortune in duty-free.
As readers of this blog may recall, my December treat to myself was to spend a week in the British School at Athens rare books room. I was working through a set of travellers’ accounts of the Aegean Sea, spanning six centuries and 12 countries of origin. I have been particularly interested in distinguishing between ‘practical’ travellers, and ‘armchair archaeologists’: between those who sailed around the Aegean Sea, and those who wrote their guidebooks in front of a roaring fire in the comfort of their own home. And so in the immortal words of Dame Julie Andrews, ‘here are a few of my favourite things‘: the first in a series of interesting bits that I really want to write about, but which will most likely end up on the cutting room floor of my thesis.
Let’s take a look at Exhibit A, Octavien Dalvimart. From what I can gather this guy worked in Britain and France, and travelled throughout the Mediterranean between 1796-1800. In 1802 he published a beautiful edition of coloured engravings on ‘The Costume of Turkey’, which came onto my radar as he stopped off en route to some of the Cycladic islands. Let’s leave colonialism and ‘othering’ aside for one minute, this is a really beautiful edition which has over sixty drawings of Ottoman traditional dress.
Enter stage right, Jean-Baptiste-Benoît Eyriès. Unlike our friend Dalvimart, I cannot find much evidence that Eyriès travelled around the Aegean. Yes, he travelled: but this seems to have been largely around Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. In 1821 he was among the founding members of the Société de Géographie (a geographical and travellers’ society of France), and was also a prolific collector of travel writing, having amassed at least 20,000 volumes. I would bet good money that he had Dalvimart in his collection somewhere.
In 1820, Eyriès published his own guide to Ottoman traditional dress,
‘La Turquie, ou, Costumes, Moeurs et Usages des Turcs. Suite de gravures coloriées avec leurs explications‘. Remember, there is little evidence that he ever travelled in this part of the world, and if we take a look at a couple of his images, we can start to see where he might have drawn inspiration…
Here we have a ‘woman of Naxos island in official dress’. To the left by Dalvimart, to the right by Eyriès. The resemblance is quite striking: the colours, the pose of the model, even down the detail on the hem. Eyriès’ lady is more slender and perhaps a little younger – but if Dalvimart had to draw accurately a Naxian model who he had infront of him and Eyriès could draw on his imagination, it is perhaps not surprising that his subject is slightly more ‘idealised’.
Let’s weigh anchor out of the Aegean Sea, onto the Turkish mainland, and take a look at another example, ‘servant to the Grand Vizier’. Again, it is not difficult to see where Eyries got his ideas from. We observe the copying of even small details: the proportions of the moustache to the face and the falling drapery of the left-hand sleeve to name a couple.
This isn’t to say that one book is a carbon copy of the other. There is some interesting information in Dalvimart which didn’t get transposed by his predecessor, for example some more traditional dress from the island, this time from Andros.
It’s not fair to call this ‘plagiarism’, and Eyries clearly acknowledges in his work that this is a ‘copy’ of a similar work published at the start of the 19th century. But it is a fascinating example of travel writing by one who hasn’t necessarily done the travelling. Dalvimart’s sketches have been reinterpreted into a new guidebook within only a few years of their original publication. His original 1802 publication contained explanatory texts in both English and French, so it wasn’t even as if Eyriès was bringing this work to a new audience through French publication. He wanted to publish his own guidebook, and the tools he used to do it were the travels and experiences of another globetrotter.
So there we have it, the first of what I hope will be a few interesting tangents on historic travellers. Yes: technology, imagery, and literature can take us to far away places without having to travel ourselves, and we have evidence of this in the publishing phenomenon of the early 19th century. But as an unashamed addict of wanderlust, what’s to say we shouldn’t swing by these places just to…er…’validate the sources’?