Cowper’s Letter Cabinet

Cowper’s Letter Cabinet

Contributor: Catriona Seth

Location: Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney

Description: A wooden cabinet with glass set in lattice, is material evidence of the epistolary network of William Cowper (1731-1800), a Romantic writer whose volumes of posthumously published letters were to become bestsellers.

The cabinet was custom-made in about 1796 by Dr John Johnson (1769-1833) of Norfolk, William Cowper’s much younger cousin with whom he lived in his declining years. It houses what appear to be the spines of six large leather volumes, each bearing eight title-pieces, alternating between black and red leather. All but eight of these forty-eight title-pieces, tooled in gold, bear a name. Across the top row, there is a series of men of the cloth, starting with the Bishop of London. The prominence given to clergymen in the organisation is a reminder of the importance to Cowper of his strong faith in God—indeed the Olney Hymns written with John Newton are nowadays probably one of his main claims to fame. The second row of labels gives the names of members of the nobility, including the Earl of Dartmouth and the poet’s most prestigious relative, Earl Cowper. The third row is reserved to women correspondents: Lady Throckmorton, Lady Croft, Catharina and Lady Hesketh. Further down, a name still familiar nowadays is that of ‘Henry Fuseli Esq[uir]e, R.A.’, the Swiss artist born in Zurich in 1741 and who would die in London, where he spent much of his adult life, in 1825. Indications like ‘Judge Rowley of Ireland’ and ‘American correspondent’ offer indications of the geographical reach of Cowper’s contacts, and ‘Anonymous’, a reminder that letters were often unsigned. Some labels give further details like ‘Professor Purdis of Oxford University’ or ‘William Wilberforce Esq. M.P.’ As the link with Wilberforce or other public figures reminds us, letters were often instruments in political campaigns including the one to end slavery in which, like Newton, Cowper played an active role—amongst others, his poem ‘The Negro’s Complaint’ (1788), about an African made to toil in a sugar plantation who reminds us that ‘Minds are never to be sold’, was widely read and quoted.

Like many of his contemporaries, Cowper was a consummate letter-writer and treasured the numerous missives he received as this extraordinary piece of cabinetry shows. His correspondent and friend, William Hayley, published the Life and posthumous writings of William Cowper in 1803-4, with plates designed by William Blake and printed by his wife Catherine. Along with portraitist George Romney and sculptor and draughtsman John Flaxman, they were instrumental in fashioning aspects of Cowper’s image. Blake judged Cowper’s to be ‘the very best letters that ever were published’. In 1824, readers were to be given more to read in the two volumes of Private Correspondence of William Cowper, Esq. with several of his most intimate Friends drawn ‘from the Originals in the Possession of his Kinsman, John Johnson’. They pronounced themselves enchanted by the breadth of emotions displayed in the correspondence. The critic in The Quarterly Review expressed characteristic sentiments in the opening lines of an article saluting the publication: ‘There is something in the letters of Cowper inexpressibly delightful. They possess excellencies so opposite—a naïve simplicity, arising from perfect goodness of heart and singleness of purpose, contrasted with a deep acquaintance with the follies and vices of human nature, and a keen sense of humour and ridicule. They unite the playfulness of a child, the affectionateness of a woman and the strong sense of a man: they give us glimpses of pleasure so innocent and pure as almost to realise the Eden of our great poet, contrasted with horrors so deep, as even to exceed his power of imagery to express’. Earlier sets of letters by women published after their deaths, in particular the Marquise de Sévigné (from 1725) and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (from 1763) had been extremely successful. They proposed an alternative model to the erudite exchanges of academicians or savants and gave Europe a taste for spontaneous yet literary texts in which the reader gained the impression of looking over the letter-writer’s shoulder. Other collections came out in different countries and languages. Voltaire’s correspondence, for instance, was widely admired, particularly those missives which strove to oppose absolutism. In Cowper, English-language speakers found a man they could admire and respect, but who did not appear too grand or too distant, one to whom they could relate in his joys and troubles.

The letter cabinet was restored in 1985. Some of the labels are blank as they may well always have been. More surprisingly, the name of the Reverend Matthew Powley, vicar of Dewsbury in Yorkshire, and husband of Susannah Unwin, appears twice, once on the top, once on the bottom row, suggesting there may have been some confusion when the restoration work was carried out. Whatever the source of the error the filing cabinet is now, as it was in Cowper’s lifetime, a treasured object which bridges the distance between the individual at home and his wider networks and showcases some of the possible links between intimacy and publication.

Date: 1790s

Creator: John Johnson

Subject: William Cowper, letters, furniture

Object type: glass-fronted wood cabinet