Physical beauty generally works to the beautiful person’s advantage, but some people are so dazzling it’s almost a disability. Their beauty overshadows every other aspect of their being. All one can do is gaze. After their death, their beauty dominates their legacy, no matter what else they achieved.
Mary Tighe (1772-1810) was a serious poet but it’s hard to find a piece of writing that doesn’t get distracted by her appearance.
In 1795, the English poet Anna Seward wrote: “a lovely Being cast around its apartments the soft lunar rays of her congenial beauty … I used the word lunar as characteristic of that beauty, for it is not resplendent and sunny … but, as it were, shaded, though exquisite.”
Mary Tighe (née Blachford) was born in Dublin and, thanks to her Methodist mother, astonishingly well educated in English, French, and Italian; literature, history, and philosophy.
At 19 she reluctantly married her handsome cousin Henry Tighe of Rossana, County Wicklow. Mary loved another, less suitable, cousin but did not know how to refuse Henry, who threatened emigration or acts of violence if she turned him down.
Her novel, Selena (completed in 1803 but not actually published until 2012) describes a heroine tricked by her family into marrying a cousin that she did not love.
As a Romantic poet, Mary Tighe ticks a lot of boxes. She was talented, beautiful, and her early death from tuberculosis at 37 fed into the image of fragile femininity. Plus, she was a formative influence on the young John Keats.
Mary Tighe is hot property at auction. This March, her notebook sold at Bonhams in London for €55,912. It contained around 140 handwritten poems, and was of scholarly interest.
Tighe’s poetry was popular in its time but not very accessible to modern readers. In the 20th century, she was more or less forgotten about.
Now, she’s been “rediscovered” as a major romantic era poet. Tighe’s most famous work, Psyche, with Other Poems, was published after her death in 1811. She published only one work in her lifetime. Psyche; or, the Legend of Love, was put out in a private edition of 50 copies for the benefit of family and friends in 1805. All of these have value at auction.
One of them, inscribed: “To Caroline Hamilton, from her most affectionate and grateful M. Tighe. Sept. 7, 1895” fetched $4,000 (around €3,727) at Sotheby’s New York in 2015. Hamilton was Mary Tighe’s sister-in-law.
In 2019, another sold for around €3,510 at Forum Auctions in the UK.
A third volume is coming up for auction at Bonham’s on 22 June (Lot 122: est. €5,843 to €7,012). This time, there’s a mystery attached.
The mystery is in the binding, which is far more ornate than any of the other known copies. The decorative on-lay on the front cover is a copy of a Wedgwood design by John Flaxman of 1776, showing a procession of putti (chubby male children symbolic of God’s presence) guiding Cupid and Psyche to their wedding; the back cover shows a cameo of a female figure, possibly the author.
The book has an ornate metal lock, set with semi-precious stones. Someone, somewhere, valued this volume enough to invest in this elaborate and costly binding. But who?
The binding is considered more or less contemporary to the volume, which was presented to the artist James Barry, one of the leading artists in Ireland. It’s modestly inscribed: “To James Barry Esq., from M Tighe 1805.”
Writing in the Old Kilkenny Review (2013) Edward Law suggests three possible options. The first is that Mary Tighe ordered the binding as a reflection of her regard for James Barry. But, if so, why is the inscription so impersonal?
The second is that Barry admired the volume (or its author) so much that he commissioned the binding. That’s possible, but Barry received the volume in August 1805 and died in February 1806. It was in his possession for less than six months.
The third, and most likely, scenario is that the book was purchased privately from Barry’s estate by one of his friends. Barry was an astonishing artist but the Crawford Gallery in his native Cork describes his life as: “thwarted by a strong romantic temperament, an argumentative nature, and financial misfortune.”
When he died, Barry’s friends rescued his possessions from his home, which was falling apart. One of these was probably the unknown admirer of Tighe who commissioned the fancy binding.