Contributor: Susan Reynolds
Location: Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, UK
Description: When we admire the portrait of Mary Unwin (1724-1796) in her lace cap and that of her friend the poet William Cowper (1731-1800) with the lace ruffles at his cuffs that are held in the Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney, we may wonder not only at the skill required to create such lace but also about the conditions in which it was produced. Although we know that this lace cap (OLNCN:1279) was designed by John Millward, we have no information about the maker who executed it, or any such details for these lace undersleeves (OLNCN:1311) which were not worn by Cowper himself, but are later in date. The names of the traditional local patterns (Buckinghamshire point ground border, Bucks point crown) have survived, but those of the craftswomen who worked them have not. All too often these enchanting gossamer-like webs of delicate thread were the results of hours of painstaking and painful labour which was poorly rewarded and took a heavy toll of the maker’s health. With only a rushlight or tallow dip for illumination in their cottages, the lace-makers of Olney either worked by daylight or risked lasting damage to their eyesight.
This lace serves as a reminder of Cowper’s sympathy and support for the local lace-workers and their plight expressed in his letters and verse.
Cowper was incensed at the exploitation and poverty which were their lot at a time when the lace industry was in decline, and wrote in 1780 `I am an eye-witness to their poverty, and do know that hundreds in this little town are upon the point of starving, and that the most unremitting industry is but barely sufficient to keep them from it. There are nearly one thousand and two hundred lace makers in this beggarly town.’ The gig economy is clearly nothing new. Two years later, in his poem `Truth’ (1782), Cowper praises the expertise and industry of the lace-maker, comparing her hard work and simple piety favourably with the godlessness of Voltaire (1694-1778):
Yon cottager, who weaves at her own door,
Pillow and bobbins all her little store;
Content though mean, and cheerful if not gay,
Shuffling her threads about the live-long day,
Just earns a scanty pittance, and at night
Lies down secure, her heart and pocket light;
She, for her humble sphere by nature fit,
Has little understanding, and no wit,
Receives no praise; but though her lot be such
(Toilsome and indigent), she renders much;
Just knows, and knows no more, her Bible true […]
Just over sixty years later, another poet, Thomas Hood, would evoke the plight of the piece-worker still more trenchantly in `The Song of the Shirt’ (1843). Cowper’s lines are less harshly graphic, but cause us to reflect: was he tacitly condoning another kind of slavery by wearing Buckinghamshire lace, a luxury produced at immense human cost, or providing valuable support by buying local lace-makers’ creations?
When I was small, my parents shook their heads –
a sallow scrap no man would care to take –
so they apprenticed me. With fragile threads
my fingers laboured for my living’s sake.
The waning yellow light bathes swollen eyes
grown dim; my face is heavy, thick lips pursed
in concentration as this worn hand tries
to shape a mystery. Am I accursed?
My ugliness, my talent, were my fate;
And yet my plainness sculpted me a shell
in which my gift lies guarded to create
a web of beauty. From a silent well
of solitude I draw this shining dream
of filaments fine as the glistening mesh
whose scuttling makers rouse a startled scream
when scuttling limbs brush unsuspecting flesh.
Arachne’s weaving lost her human life;
mine, day, by day, is shadowing my sight.
The veil I never wore as wedded wife
flutters before my eyes to mask the light.
Yet I was consecrated, like a bride,
and as the darkness gathers, I perceive
the loveliness I made in modest pride
was more than carnal beauty could conceive.