S.T. Coleridge, Edwin Atherstone and the Grove Conversazione:

Some Newly-Discovered Letters [1]


Tom Mayberry


(Coleridge Bulletin New Series 18, Winter 2001, pp.43-52)






On 10 May 1828, some 2,500 of England’s nobility and gentry gathered at the Western Exchange, Old Bond Street, for a private view of the latest work by the artist John Martin.  His new painting, ‘The Fall of Nineveh’, was larger and more ambitious than anything he had attempted before, and was generally greeted with astonished approval by those who, during the next four months, crowded to see it.  The painting developed yet further the apocalyptic manner adopted by Martin in works such as ‘The Fall of Babylon’ and ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’, depicting the moment in which Sardanapalus prepares for death while his city ‘flames beneath the bolts of Heaven’.[2] 

The private view was a moment of triumph not only for Martin, but also for his close friend Edwin Atherstone, a poet whose ambitions were as grand as his gifts were limited.  Earlier that week the first six books of his epic poem, also called The Fall of Nineveh, had been published by Baldwin and Cradock, leaving Atherstone to hope that his acceptance by literary London was now assured.  When Mrs Siddons arrived at the view, Atherstone introduced himself and cleared a way to the picture for her. Later he walked round the room with Sir Walter Scott (who had recently accepted the dedication of Atherstone’s poem), noting how everyone made way for the great man as he passed by.  ‘Such a crowded private view has never been known,’ Atherstone wrote to a friend the next day. ‘I heard my own name whispered about me.’[3] 

Not everyone was enthusiastic for the work of Martin or of Atherstone.  When, in May 1830, Coleridge saw Martin’s illustrations for The Pilgrim’s Progress he expressed himself bluntly to his nephew Henry Nelson Coleridge:


Martin is a poor creature.  It seems as if he looked at Nature through bits of stained glass, and was never satisfied with any appearance that was not prodigious.  He never schooled his imagination to the




apprehension of the true Idea of the Beautiful.[4]


Coleridge’s opinion of Atherstone was even less favourable and had been formed during Atherstone’s increasingly unwelcome visits to Highgate during the 1820s.  It was in the very month of the private view that Coleridge’s patience was finally exhausted.  Encouraged by recent public success, Atherstone evidently tried to obtain for himself and Martin a standing invitation to Coleridge’s Thursday evening conversazione.  Coleridge, who recognised his own ‘egregious cowardice in the use of the monosyllable No!’,[5] realised that the plainest language was now called for, and in a long and increasingly indignant letter he explained why Atherstone’s request could not be granted.  At the same time he provided one of the fullest accounts of the Grove conversazione and its origins [Letter 4 below].




Edwin Atherstone, twelfth of the fifteen children of a prosperous cloth dyer and his wife, was born at Nottingham in 1788 and educated at the Moravian school at Fulneck near Leeds.  He was ‘passionately fond of music’ and when not yet sixteen years old was desperately courted by Mary Pierson, the niece of his music master.  No clergyman would marry them, but for the next twenty-five years they passed for man and wife despite Mary’s mental instability and a nature which was ‘excitable, irritable, & jealous’.  In 1807 he was appointed music master at a Roman Catholic girls’ school in Taunton, Somerset, and despite his attempts to better himself professionally he remained in Taunton for more than twenty years.[6]

His relative failure as a musician may have fueled his growing determination to succeed as an author.  His earliest access to literary London was evidently provided through his acquaintance with Leigh Hunt and his brother John.  Both were occasional visitors to Taunton, where their old friend J.W. Marriott was editor of the Taunton Courier,[7] and following John Hunt’s imprisonment in 1813 for libelling the Prince Regent, Atherstone visited him in Clerkenwell Gaol.  By the early 1820s Atherstone had become the occasional correspondent of Robert Southey and Sir Walter Scott, and in Somerset itself added Tom Poole to his list of often reluctant acquaintances.[8]  When Mrs Coleridge and her daughter Sara visited Poole at Nether Stowey in 1823, Atherstone was on hand to seek an introduction.  Soon afterwards he sent Sara a copy of his new poem A Midsummer Day’s Dream (1824), one of his earliest




published attempts at Miltonic blank verse and illustrated, as Nineveh would later be, by John Martin. Sara acknowledged the gift warmly [Letter 1 below], though, as Coleridge was soon to record, Atherstone was ‘very far from being a favorite’ [9] with her.

Atherstone’s first recorded meeting with Coleridge took place on 9 July 1826.  He visited Highgate to obtain a letter of introduction to the Revd Edward Irving [Letter 2 below] and also to negotiate on behalf of his friend S.C. Hall for a contribution to Hall’s new publication The Amulet.  Coleridge, taking pity both on Atherstone the aspiring poet and Hall the struggling publisher, agreed to contribute his poem The Improvisatore, together with some other small items ‘in verse and prose’, and was to receive £20 for his trouble. In the event Coleridge waited until 1828 before receiving a payment of only £10, and his justifiable sense of having been cheated by Hall no doubt coloured his view of Atherstone as well.[10]  Atherstone had soon relayed to Leigh Hunt, then also living in Highgate, his impressions of Coleridge and his protectors the Gillmans, prompting from Hunt an indiscreet letter which suggests the low opinion some of Coleridge’s friends had of Mrs Gillman, and their suspicion of her motives [Letter 3 below].

When Atherstone returned to London six months later, few people could have been more unwelcome at Coleridge’s door. On 3 January 1827 Coleridge wrote to Tom Poole:


Atherstone is in town; and absolutely in spite of all my evasions forced from…[me] John Coleridge’s address in order to wait on my Daughter…Your address I would not attempt to recollect—so told him, I did not know—& doubted whether you were in town. Pity that a man of really considerable vigor of intellect should be deficient in moral or at least mannerly tact—.  Nature wove him well but with coarse threads.  His epic poem in 24 Books on the Siege of Nineveh, the whole of which with the exception of one or two Proper Names is to be his own invention, is the most ridiculous thing, I ever heard of—and I wasted some wisdom upon him to no purpose.—Martin, the Painter, had rendered all I could say Betty Martin.[11]


Someone less insensitive, or less desperate for acceptance, than Atherstone might have realised that his attempt the following year to become part of Coleridge’s regular circle was certain to be resisted.




The English conversazione was a highly popular form of intellectual soireé, and already had a long history by the time Atherstone reached London in the 1820s.  English travellers had encountered such gatherings in Italy during the




18th century, and by the early decades of the 19th century meetings of widely differing sizes and degrees of formality were being held throughout the land for the discussion of literature, art and science.[12]  In 1828 Atherstone wrote to a friend:


On Monday last I received an invitation from the College of Physicians to attend their Conversaziones during the present season.  I went that night, & met about 200 of the principal literary & scientific characters in London, & was introduced to several, & treated with great respect…On Friday I am invited to a Conversazione at the Royal Institution.[13]


Two years later he had indifferent success in recruiting members for a conversazione established by John Martin.  William Godwin declined an invitation, replying testily that he would ‘on no account visit Mr Martin on these terms’.[14]  Carlyle was reluctantly persuaded to attend in 1831, remarking to his wife that he was going ‘to Martin the Painter’s public party or conversazione, anticipated by me as a mighty dull affair.’ [15]

Coleridge’s own weekly gatherings had less studied origins, and were variously described by him as ‘the Grove Conversazione’, ‘the Thursday Conversation Evenings’, ‘Attic nights’, and once, with the wry self-knowledge of the greatest talker of the age, as the ‘Oneversazioni’.[16]  They began in the summer of 1824, soon after he had moved with the Gillmans to their new home at 3, The Grove, and were partly intended to free Coleridge on other days for writing Aids to Reflection, begun in the spring of that year. One of the earliest Conversation Evenings took place on Thursday 10 June 1824, when the guests included Henry Crabb Robinson, Charles Lamb, Henry Taylor, Basil Montagu and the Revd Edward Irving.[17]  Montagu and Irving became faithful attenders, and between Coleridge and Irving—‘the super-Ciceronian, ultra-Demosthenic Pulpiteer of the Scotch Chapel in Cross Street, Hatton Garden’ [18]—there developed a deep if short-lived bond.  ‘I consider Irving as a man of great power, and I have an affection for him,’ Coleridge remarked in June 1828, after the scales had fallen from his eyes.  ‘He is an excellent man, but his brain has been turned by the shoutings of the mob.  I think him mad—literally mad.’ [19]

In spite of their modest beginnings the evenings quickly assumed a more formal character, attracting a growing number outside Coleridge’s immediate




circle who wished to participate in what were soon recognised as remarkable occasions.[20]  In July 1825 Coleridge wrote to Daniel Stuart that ‘a few weeks ago we had present, two Painters, two Poets, one Divine, an eminent Chemist & Naturalist, a Major, a Naval Captain & Voyager, a Physician, a colonial Chief Justice, a Barrister and a Baronet.’[21]  Coleridge clearly relished his weekly opportunity to preside at a gathering of friends, admirers and disciples, and an air of theatricality marked the proceedings.  After an early supper, sometimes shared with intimate friends such as Tom Poole, Coleridge would appear among his guests in ‘semi-clerical dress’ and automatically assumed the role of principal speaker.  He often talked ‘in terms so abstruse as to communicate little or no meaning to anyone present’, and though a few visitors, notably Thomas Carlyle, were determinedly unimpressed, even sceptics such as Thomas De Quincey acknowledged the frequently overwhelming power of Coleridge’s eloquence.  He was, De Quincey wrote of Coleridge the talker, ‘magnificent beyond all human standards; and a felicitous conversational specimen from him was sometimes the most memorable chapter in a man’s whole intellectual experience through life.’[22]

When the evening came to an end ‘the bedroom candles would be brought in and placed on a table near the door of the drawing-room.  Coleridge would move slowly across the room, continuing his discourse the while, continuing it as he went through the hall to the staircase, continuing it as he slowly mounted the stairs, until his voice was lost in the distance.’[23]






Atherstone’s evident request in May 1828 to become a regular member of the Thursday Conversation Evenings was made to Mrs Gillman, by then the acknowledged gatekeeper of Coleridge’s daily life.  Coleridge himself replied to Atherstone, describing the origins of the evenings, his concerns for the health of Mr and Mrs Gillman and their younger son Henry, and his determination to allow no appearance of abusing the hospitality of his ‘dear & excellent Friends’.  He also suggested, disingenuously, that the Thursday gatherings were by then in decline, though it is clear that throughout 1828 they continued in relative vigour.  It was not until July 1829 that they were finally given up as a result of Coleridge’s increasing ill-health.

There is no evidence that Atherstone ever again visited The Grove after receiving Coleridge’s magnificent rebuff.  Many other disappointments lay ahead, including a savage review of The Fall of Nineveh in Blackwood’s Magazine




for February 1830.  He set up as an art dealer in London, and frequently exhibited John Martin’s paintings.  He also continued to write poetry and prose with determined self-belief, publishing, amongst other works, The Sea-Kings in England (1830), The Handwriting on the Wall  (1858), and a final edition of the completed Nineveh (1868).  But success never came.  Devotedly cared for in his last years by his daughter Mary Elizabeth, he died at his home in Bath on 29 January 1872, aged 83, and was buried in the abbey churchyard.  A confused mass of his papers was then gathered up into his mahogany writing slope, and remained undisturbed there for the next 125 years.

Posterity has judged Atherstone harshly as a poet; Coleridge judged him little better as a man.  But Mary Elizabeth, who had witnessed the trials of his common-law marriage and the repeated disappointment of his hopes, remembered him differently, and perhaps more fairly.  Let hers be the final word.  ‘His life was one of almost constant struggle,’ she wrote of him after his death, ‘with simple peaceful joys between…All who best knew him, have ever spoken of him as a man of most honorable, noble mind and heart.’[24]



*      *      *      *      *      *      *









LETTER 1:  Sara Coleridge, junior, To Edwin Atherstone, 1824


Dated:            [Sunday] 6 June 1824

Postmark:       [None]

Address:         Edwin Atherstone Esqre



                                                                       Gretahall Keswick

                                                                        June 6th 1824

My dear Sir

It is with great pleasure that I have just reperused the “Midsummer Day’s Dream”: thank you for this & for your kindness in sending me a copy of it:—I admire your friend Martin’s designs very much—the second particularly would be a subject suited to his genius were it on a larger scale—you two are certainly kindred spirits.

The sultriness of the season proves to me rather more forcibly than I




could wish the truth of some of your glowing descriptions:—however before the weather grew so hot I took some delightful mountain rambles with my Uncle Southey— as I read your poem I can hardly persuade myself that you have not lived in a land of lakes & mountains—how could such ideas ever have presented themselves to the imagination of the inhabitant of so tame a region as your’s is compared to our’s & without any insinuation against the picturesque merits of the Quantock Hills & the lovely vale of Stowey,  I must be permitted to assert that you would find our scenery much more congenial to your disposition, more “allied to your own powers,” &c

Almost ever since I saw you I have been afflicted with a very distressing complaint in my eyes; which sadly incommodes me in all my employments, and takes from all my pleasures:—Mr Gillman has in a most friendly manner offered to undertake the cure of it, which however cannot be effected in less than five or six months:—this kind invitation I intend to accept in the Autumn—it will be a great delight to me to enjoy my dear father’s society again so soon.[25]  You may have heard that he has been made a member of the Royal Literary Society—he is well pleased with his reception in it, though he was not very anxious at first to become a member.[26]

I have been employed this winter in translating the “Memoirs of the Chevalier Bayard”[27] from puzzling old French—I am quite enamoured of my hero, & look upon him as the very pink & pearl of prowess, courtesy, generosity, & all qualities requisite to form a perfect knight—the translation has been sent to Mr Murray some time & I am in daily expectation of a proof sheet.

When you see Mr: Poole pray give my best remembrances to him—he is so kindly interested about all the humble efforts of young ladies that perhaps he will not be ill pleased to hear what I have been doing this winter—the Memoirs will only fill one volume, & of course I was obliged to proceed very slowly in my task on account of the weakness in my eyes.

Mama desires to unite with me in kind regards to yourself & to Mrs Atherstone, though we have not the pleasure of knowing her, and believe me



                                      Your truly obliged


                                                                 Sara Coleridge



LETTER 2:   S.T. Coleridge to the Revd Edward Irving, 1826


Dated:            [Sunday] 9 July 1826

Postmark:       [None]

Address:         Revd. E. Irving

                     from Mr Coleridge

                     by Mr Atherston                             9 July 1826


My dear Sir

The Bearer, Mr Atherston, a Poet, Man of Genius & acquaintance of mine is anxious to procure the means of hearing you, which having two Ladies under his care he cannot do among the standing part of your Audience—& as he leaves Town for Somersetshire on Thursday—this is his only chance.  If it should be in your power to help him in this, I am sure, you will.

Ever my dear Sir

with high & affectionate

regard & respect

yours  S.T. Coleridge




LETTER 3:  Leigh Hunt to Edwin Atherstone, 1826


Dated:            [Thursday] 13 July 1826

Postmark:       [None]

Address:         E. Atherstone Esqre

                     21 Arundel Street, Strand          Highgate—July 13. 1826.


Dear Sir,

I am sorry, when I gave you an invitation for the ladies to accompany you on Friday evening, that I lost the opportunity of speaking to them myself, & requesting them to do us that favour.  I hope it is not yet too late.  Mrs. Hunt begs her compliments, and joins me in hoping that we shall have the pleasure of seeing them.[28]

So Coleridge is not to be disengaged from the Gilmanian arms!  It is all very well on his part, but surely not quite so on theirs.  I had a notion of giving coats of arms to all the living poets.  I have a mighty inclination to begin them now, & to assign to Coleridge, for his supporters, Mr. Gilman passant, (seeing that he goes about on his avocations) & Mrs. Gilman gardant; but I fear I should




give rise to more scandal than I contemplate.  The male Gilman, I understand, is a pleasant fellow.  Respecting the female, people’s countenances are not quite so off-hand.

                                             Yours very truly, Leigh Hunt.



LETTER 4:  S.T. Coleridge To Edwin Atherstone, 1828


Dated:            [Tuesday] 20 May, 1828

Postmark:       Highgate, 21 May, 1828

Address:         Edwin Atherstone, Esqre

                     15 Arundel Street, Strand


Dear Sir

I found Mrs Gillman preparing to answer your note; but obviously embarrassed how to convey Mr Gillman’s and her own feelings without wounding your’s and without any appearance of discourtesy; especially in respect of Mr Martin, whose Genius and Rank as an Artist, must in Mr Gillman’s estimation give him a claim to any attention, in his power to shew, and whom they will be happy to see on Thursday Evening next—and therefore, availing myself of the pretext, which a Morning Visitor on Mrs Gillman afforded me, I told her, that I was about to write to you and would answer your note to her inclusively.

From the time that I became a settled Inmate of this House, there has been a sort of tacit compact between me and the amiable Heads of the Family. My circle of acquaintance has been at all times narrow—but such Friends, and intimate Acquaintances, as I then had, they kindly and cordially adopted as their own; and I on my part formed no new acquaintance but in common with the Family. By no other means indeed was it possible to guard against the making a very unworthy return to their affectionate and disinterested friendship by subjecting them to the appearance of keeping a Lodging and Boarding House—in the eyes of Strangers at least, ridiculous as the notion would be to the People of the Place and to all who knew Mr and Mrs Gillman.—Some three or four years ago, when I was employed on a work which required all the time, that my state of Health left in my own power,[29] Mr Gillman with the intention of saving me from casual interruptions intimated to all my known Friends in London & its’ vicinity, that we should make a point of being at home on Thursday Evenings—& desiring them to choose that day for their occasional excursions to Highgate, unless there was particular reason for the contrary. About this time, thru’ the medium of my old friends, Mr & Mrs Montagu, we became acquainted with Mr Irving—who for a long time was our regular Thursday Visitor—and as he was an object of great Interest, Mr & Mrs Gillman often invited four or five of our Neighbors on these evenings, as




knowing that it would be gratifying them—so that sometimes our Party became numerous, and some one or other jestingly called it the Grove Conversazione.—This, however, has long since ceased—our parties have of late seldom exceeded three or four—and in fact, it is soley on account of my friend, Basil Montagu, who finds a comfort in this weekly episode of pure air and quiet Intertalk, and who every now and then brings up a friend with him, that we keep up the distinction of the day at all.—Latterly, we have all of us, from various causes, been less than ever in that state of health and spirit, which fits us for other than few and particular faces.

When I last saw you, I more than hinted to you, that both Mr and Mrs Gillman’s Health was a subject of much anxiety to me—that the younger of their two sons [30] was in a state of health which greatly distressed & depressed his Parents—that I had myself more than one recent source of uneasiness—in short, that it was at this time a House of Mourning rather than of Mirth—and I trusted, that these intimations would explain to you my want of promptness in meeting your evident wish which otherwise I ought to have received as a compliment.

Still, however, when I heard your motive, I was not so forgetful of a Poet’s Feelings on the completion of an important work, as not to give with inward cordiality the invitation, which in the name of my Friends I gave verbally. And respecting Mr Martin, I have already said that Mr & Mrs Gillman will be happy to see him. The rest I must leave to your own judgement—only entreating you to imagine yourself in my place, situated as I am relatively to Mr and Mrs Gillman.—A Letter from a Friend introduces A to me. Well! I wish to shew every attention & introduce him to Mr & Mrs G—A then introduces B.—B. begs to intoduce C. and D. &c&c. All these are to be received by the Master and Mistress of the Family—& to form part of their circle, and to be their Acquaintances, tho’ it is known & understood that it is to see me exclusively that they come.—Where could be the limit to acquaintances thus accumulating? What less would it be on my part than desiring Mr Gillman to turn his Drawing Room once a week into a Coffee house or Auditorium for strangers to come to hear me talk—who care as little, and have as little reason to care, for me, or for them, my dear & excellent Friends, as for the Lion & his Keepers in Exeter Change?[31]

If, dear Sir! you think as much and to as good purpose as I believe you to do, you will find in the very length of this explanatory note a proof of my Respect for you, which you will not suffer to be invalidated by any momentary pain which the determination, I have at last formed, to tell the truth at once & plainly may inflict, tho’ in the present instance sorely against the will of your obliged

                       S.T. Coleridge

       20 May, 1828.

[1]     Edwin Atherstone’s literary manuscripts and correspondence were given by his daughter, Mary Elizabeth Atherstone, to the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society in 1881. They remained almost entirely unexamined until they were deposited in the Somerset Record Office, Taunton, in 1997 (ref. DD/SAS G/3016).  Letters to and from Atherstone cited in this paper are all contained in the collection.  I acknowledge gratefully the guidance and advice given to me by Mr Ian Atherstone.

[2]     Thomas Balston, John Martin 1789–1854: His Life and Works (1947), 106–8.

[3]     Atherstone papers: Sarah Siddons to Edwin Atherstone, nd [May 1828]; Edwin Atherstone to Hannah West, 11 May [1828].

[4]     Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Table Talk, ed. Carl Woodring, 1 (1990), 152.  Charles Lamb was equally unimpressed by Martin.  See  Lamb’s essay ‘Barrenness of the Imaginative Faculty in the Productions of Modern Art’, The Last Essays of Elia (1833).

[5]     Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 (1971), 698.

[6]     Atherstone papers: biographical notes by Mary Elizabeth Atherstone.

[7]     Obituary of J.W. Marriott in the Somerset County Gazette, 11 February, 1865.

[8]     Atherstone was presumably responsible for introducing his brother-in-law, the Nottingham artist Thomas Barber, to Tom Poole. It was Barber who in about 1823 painted the well-known portrait of Poole in balding middle age.

[9]      Collected Letters, 6, 662.

[10] Collected Letters, 6, 697–700, 801.

[11] Collected Letters, 6, 662.

[12] Charles Lamb’s famous evening parties, begun in 1806, and held originally on Wednesdays and then on Thursdays, were decidedly at the informal end of the scale.

[13] Atherstone papers: Edwin Atherstone to Hannah West, nd [1828].

[14] Atherstone papers: William Godwin to Edwin Atherstone, 5 June [1830].

[15] The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, ed. Charles Richard Sanders et al., 5 (1976), 398–9.

[16] Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 5 (1971), xxxix.

[17] Collected Letters, 5, 369–70.

[18] Collected Letters, 5, xxxix.

[19] Richard W. Armour and Raymond F. Howes, Coleridge the Talker (new ed. 1969), 335 (quoting Henry Crabb Robinson).

[20] Armour and Howes, op. cit., contains extensive contemporary accounts of the Thursday Conversation Evenings. The chronology of the evenings can most easily be traced in Valerie Purton, A Coleridge Chronology (1993). 

[21] Collected Letters, 5, 474.

[22] Armour and Howes, op cit., 79, 82, 83, 89.

[23] Armour and Howes, op cit., 91.

[24] Atherstone papers: biographical notes by Mary Elizabeth Atherstone.

[25] Sara Coleridge and her mother had visited Coleridge at Highgate for the first time in January, 1823.

[26] Coleridge was elected a Royal Associate of the Royal Society of Literature in March, 1824, and received an annual grant of 100 guineas.

[27] The translation was published in 1825.

[28] Atherstone had just been to tea at Leigh Hunt’s, an event referred to by Hunt in a letter to B.W. Procter (Barry Cornwall): ‘Charles Lamb and his sister come to drink tea with me to-morrow afternoon at five, dinner being prohibited him by that “second conscience” of his, as he calls her.  Well, to meet and be beatified with the sight of Charles Lamb, comes Mr. Atherstone, author of some poems which you have most probably heard of; and as poets, like lovers, can never have one beatific vision but they desire another, I no sooner mention your name than he begs me for God’s sake to let him have a sight of you.  Pray gratify us all if you can.’ (E.V. Lucas, The Life of Charles Lamb, 2 (1905), 164–5).  The following week Atherstone went to an evening party at Hunt’s which was also attended by Lamb and Mary Shelley. (P.G. Patmore, My Friends and Acquaintances (1854)).

[29] The work was Aids to Reflection, published in 1825.

[30]Henry Gillman.

[31]Exeter Change was built in 1676 on the north side of the Strand.  Part of it was used as a menagerie from about 1773.