From the Archives: Howdill in Jutland, 1911

Last August I spent a fascinating afternoon at the Leeds Museums and Galleries Discovery Centre, looking through Charles Barker Howdill’s copious Jutland notes. The well-worn small green leather folder contains around a hundred looseleaf items, most of them handwritten jottings for his slide lectures about Jutland.

We know that Howdill visited Jutland in 1911 – but since none of the notes contains a date, we can’t be sure which of them were taken down on his Danish trip, and which were written up afterwards. That same year, the prominent English man of letters Edmund Gosse published his travel memoir Two Visits to Denmark, 1872 and 1874 (London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1911). Howdill copied out a short passage of description from the Gosse book, which may well have inspired him to head to Denmark himself (by an odd coincidence, the original manuscript of Two Visits to Denmark now forms part of the extensive Gosse archives held by the Brotherton Library’s Special Collections at the University of Leeds – see the picture below).

However, while Gosse was fascinated by Denmark’s literary intelligentsia and beat a path straight to Copenhagen, Howdill, with his provincial preferences, never reached the Danish capital at all, spending virtually his entire time on the westerly peninsula of Jutland. He believed there was a special affinity between Jutland and Yorkshire, which the Jutes had invaded in the fifth century AD: ‘A Yorkshireman is thus entitled to expect, in this country of his forefathers to come across some of the traits and characteristic energy found in his own broad shire’.

The most disappointing feature of Howdill’s notebook is that many of the regional legends and histories he copied down were based not on stories he had picked up from loquacious locals during sojourns at Danish roadside inns, but from Horace Marryat’s A Residence in Jutland, The Danish Isles and Copenhagen, Volume II (London: John Murray, 1860), which is crammed full of historical anecdotes, and intriguing if rather far-fetched stories about places with evocative-sounding names like Veigle, Jellinge, Silkeborg and Viborg.  Here and there, Howdill even records which pages he consulted when summarising Marryat’s tall tales to illustrate his own Jutland slides.

Howdill comes into his own, however, in his wonderful descriptions of the remote artists’ colony of Skagen, which he compares to a Danish Land’s End. Intending to stay only a couple of hours, he finds himself beguiled by this place of ‘gales, sand-drifts and shipwrecks’, lingering over gloomy monuments to the shipwrecked and to the great poet Holger Drachmann. Howdill notes: ‘Photographed the men who/appeared diffident’, a line that seems to sum up his Jutland experiences. Of the famed Lloyds’ Signal Station, he writes: ‘Many in this audience/Have passed it on their way into the Baltic to Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Russia.’

Compared with the Balkans and Corsica – which inspired dozens of his slide-show lectures – Jutland seemed to hold limited interest for Howdill. His Denmark slides contain none of the feasts, fairs and funerals he photographed on his other travels. Perhaps that is why he resorted to rifling through Horace Marryat to spice up his notes. But on reaching Skagen, the furthermost point in his Jutland journey, Charles Barker Howdill does appear to have experienced some sort of epiphany in the windswept sands of this ‘outlandish spot’. Howdill’s Skagen notes end with a dour prediction that Drachmann’s sand-dune grave might be torn asunder by the elements. Happily, more than a century later the poet’s romantically-located tomb remains intact.

Further reading: Jutland Jottings (1911)

                                                                                                                                                                                              Duncan McCargo, Copenhagen