Alfred Tennyson's thoughts on Idylls of the King and Tintagel


“So great had been the success of the first four “Idylls of the King” that my father’s friends begged him to “continue the epic.” He received a letter from the Duke of Argyll again urging him to take up as his next subject the Holy Grail, but he said he shunned handling the subject, for fear that it might seem to some almost profane.” Hallam Tennyson

Alfred Tennyson writes to the Duke of Argyll, “As to the Sangreal, as I gave up the subject so many long years ago I do not think that I shall resume it”. 

Excerpts from Alfred Tennyson’s letter-diary. Tour in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles. 1860:
August 21st.  Bideford. We came here last night at 7 o’clock. I and Woolner are going down the coast to Tintagel, where we shall stop till the others join us. 

August 23rd. Bude. Fine sea here, smart rain alternating with weak sunshine. Woolner is very kindly. We go off to-day to Boscastle which is three miles from Tintagel. 

August 23rd. Arrived at Tintagel, grand coast, furious rain. Mr. Poelaur would be a good name to direct to me by. 

August. 25th. Tintagel. Black cliffs and caves and storm and wind, but I weather it out and take my ten miles a day walks in my weather-proofs. Palgrave arrived to-day. 

A very sweet letter that Tennyson wrote to his first born son, aged eight years old at the time. His brother Lionel was six years old: 

To Hallam.


Aug. 25th, 1860

My Dear Hallam,

I was very glad to receive your little letter.

Mind that you and Lionel do not quarrel and vex poor

 mamma who has lots of work to do; and learn your

 lessons regularly; for gentlemen and ladies will not take

 you for a gentleman when you grow up if you are

 ignorant. Here are great black cliffs of slate-rock, and

 deep, black caves, and the ruined castle of King Arthur,

 and I wish that you and Lionel and mamma were here

 to see them. Give my love to grandpapa and to Lionel,

and work well at your lessons. I shall be glad to find

you know more and more every day.

Your loving papa,  A. TENNYSON.

August 28th. Tintagel. We believe that we are going to-morrow to Penzance or in that direction. We have had two fine days and some exceedingly grand coast views. He is an artist, a friend of woolner’s (Inchbold), sketching now in this room. I am very tired of walking against wind and rain. 
 Say what you like but for me this is Alfred Tennyson as captured during that Cornwall
trip by John William Inchbold himself!  
Tintagel by John William Inchbold, 1861, Graphite, watercolour and goache on paper, Tate Gallery
The image is painted in watercolour with detail in gouache applied over a pencil underdrawing on blue wove paper. It has been lined onto a one-ply board, which has been inscribed by the artist (I'm telling you, just as Tennyson described).

{Mr. Palgrave writes: following the publicationof the first four “Idylls of the King” in 1859, when he was intending to write further Idylls, this was, perhaps, specially entitled to be named Tennyson’s Arthurian journey.

At a sea inlet of wonderful picturesqueness, so grandly modeled are the rocks which wall it, so translucently purple the waves that are its pavement, waves whence the “naked babe” Arthur came ashore in flame, stand the time-eaten ruins of unknown date which bear the name Tintagel. To these of course we climbed, descending from “the castle gateway by the chasm,” and at a turn in the rocks meeting that ever graceful, ill-appreciated landscapist, Inchbold: whose cry of delighted wonder at sight of Tennyson still sounds in the sole survivor’s ear. Thence, after some delightful wandering walks, by a dreary road (for such is often the character of central Cornwall), we moved to Camelford on the greatly-winding stream which the name indicates. Near the little town, on the edge of the river, is shown a large block of stone upon which legend places Arthur, hiding or meditating, after his last fatal battle. It lay below the bank; and in his eagerness to reach it and sit down (as he sat in 1851 on that other, the Sasso di Dante by Sta. Maria del Fiore), Arthur’s poet slipped right into the sea, and returned laughing to Camelford. 

The next halting-halting place I remember was Penzance; whence, by Marazion, we crossed to and saw our English smaller but yet impressive and beautiful St. Michael’s Mount}.  Excerpts from Alfred Lord Tennyson A Memoir by Hallam Tennyson, pgs. 460-464, The Macmillan Company, London, 1897, Volume 1

NOTE:  When I read the name Inchbold in Tennyson's entry, I googled it, not recognizing it and discovered it was nineteenth century painter, John William Inchbold (1830–1888).  

Artist biography

English painter. He exhibited watercolours at the Society of British Artists in 1849 and 1850 and at the Royal Academy in 1851. At this period his work has a fluidity and a freedom of handling that is closer to Richard Parkes Bonington than to the prevailing style of Victorian watercolours. Around 1852 he came under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and radically altered his style.

It is not known how Inchbold met the Pre-Raphaelites, but the Rossettis knew him well, and he became a close friend of Algernon Charles Swinburne. John Everett Millais admired his work. Inchbold's pictures soon attracted the attention of John Ruskin, and in 1858 he visited Switzerland to paint alpine subjects under Ruskin's supervision. From this point onwards Inchbold's painting changed direction, possibly as a reaction against the bullying he had received from Ruskin. Visits to Venice in 1862 and the following years resulted in a series of ethereal pictures painted with the freedom of his early works and entirely lacking the highly finished technique of his Pre-Raphaelite pictures.

Inchbold never married and seems to have had a rather melancholy life. Dante Gabriel Rossetti complained that he was a bore, and Swinburne wrote, ‘He had not many friends, being very shy and rather brusque in manner, so that people were apt to think him odd.' Overshadowed by the leading figures of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood his work sank into obscurity after his death.  Source:  Tate Gallery

To my absolute joy, three paintings are housed at Tate Gallery, London, UK, all entitled, Tintagel from 1861.  Remember Tennyson's trip was the year before where he noted Inchbold drawing. It makes sense to me that upon their return to England, Inchbold painted his watercolours finished a year later in 1861.  I am thrilled at this connection. The timing makes sense to me. Although, the name Inchbold may be known to others I am sure. Still, made me smile at the discovery. This is partly why I never tire of researching Alfred Tennyson. There is always something new to find, a connection to be made. 

I focussed briefly on Idylls of the King and Tintagel because I read Malory's Morte de Arthur while in college, twenty years ago now, and have always loved the myth of the Arthurian legend.  For me, it never gets old! 

Tintagel by John William Inchbold, 1861, Graphite, watercolour and goache on paper, Tate Gallery

Inchbold's Tintagel below as he drew it in 1861 and to the right as it stands on the spot in Cornwall, today.


Hels said…
Many thanks. I have tracked around the Isle of Wight following Tennyson, but never Tennyson's Cornwall. So I was very interested to read "at a sea inlet of wonderful picturesqueness, so grandly modelled are the rocks which wall it, so translucently purple the waves that are its pavement, waves whence the naked babe Arthur came ashore in flame, stand the time-eaten ruins etc".

In Freshwater Bay, Tennyson was similarly besotted with the chalk cliffs that fell in a sheer and dramatic way into the churning ocean waves below. He strode along the island coastal path daily and was presumably inspired by the seascape. A coincidence perhaps, but I don't think so.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Hels,
I want to walk the same paths Tennyson took in Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight. Lucky you for doing it. I have always wanted to post something about Tennyson's connection to Cornwall via Idylls of the King and this was the perfect time for it. I only wish there was more information but how wonderful to have his surviving letters and travel diary. No, I agree with you it is not a coincidence at all.
Thanks so much for commenting.
WoofWoof said…
I love Cornwall but in recent years. Have baulked at the thought of the long journey from London and settled instead. For the Isle of Wight which is much nearer. West Wight is very like Cornwall on a smaller scale, quite rugged and similar coastline. The needles near where Tennyson lived is quite like lands end. Thanks again for a wonderfully interesting post. I hadn't realised that I have walked where Tennyson walked in Cornwall eg from Penzance to Marazion and then over the causeway to St Michaels Mount! I have to admit that The Idylls are not my favourite but do you know the section of the Coming of Arthur (?) where the baby rolls in from the sea on the ninth wave (cf Kate Bush's album of that name), definitely sounds like he wrote that in Tintagel. Great bit of detective work re Inchbold
Kimberly Eve said…
I will keep that in mind about West Wight. You are so lucky to have walked in Tennyson's footsteps. I hope to do the same this July when I visit the Isle of Wight where I'll be staying with friends but more of that later.
Yes, I do know that bit about the baby rolls in from the sea and I know the Kate Bush album as well. Inchbold was a great find I tell you!
Thank you so much WoofWoof for taking the time to visit, comment with such honesty and passion, and for just stopping by! Your visits make me smile.