Contributor: Kathryn Sutherland
Location: Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, Buckinghamshire
Description: With oval frames of honey-coloured horn and silver hinges, Mrs Unwin’s spectacles have a fashionable air. One sidepiece is missing and only one lens survives to indicate slight long-sightedness of the kind that comes with age. Prescription lenses were in use at this time but we do not know whether Mrs Unwin’s were prescribed or an ‘off-the-shelf’ purchase. Spectacles to correct long-sightedness are useful for reading and other close work such as the embroidery William Cowper describes as among the comfortable pleasures and ‘fire-side enjoyments’ of ‘The Winter Evening’, when beneath the flying needle a pattern grows of buds, leaves, and flowers ‘that cannot fade’ (The Task, 4. 150-8).
Their friend, Cowper’s cousin Lady Hesketh, describes another such evening by the hearth when she and Cowper spread themselves in two large chairs, ‘leaving poor Mrs Unwin to find all the comfort she can in a small one, half as high again as ours, and considerably harder than marble. However, she protests it is what she likes … Her constant employment is knitting stockings … She sits knitting on one side of the table in her spectacles, and he on the other reading to her (when he is not employed in writing) in his’ (Poems … with Anecdotes, 65-6). In art and life Mrs Unwin sits bespectacled, sewing, knitting, attending patiently to her ‘busy task’. As confirmation of the scene, her workbox and bobbin winder have also found space in the Cowper and Newton Museum at Olney.
Cowper’s sight was weak from childhood when he was sent, aged eight, for a cure to the house of Mrs Disney, an oculist. Throughout life he suffered from inflammation of the eyes and other visual disorders. Though we have Mrs Unwin’s spectacles, Cowper’s have not survived. Sight is no simple physical sense: imagination and the mind’s eye shape what we see; and Cowper’s mind’s eye was nervous, fearful, trapped within a narrow space. We know what he saw; Mrs Unwin has left no account. As Cowper explained it to her son William, ‘writing does not agree with your mother’ (9 Feb 1782). Entries under her name, Mary (née Cawthorne) Unwin, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Wikipedia segue smoothly into talk of the men in her life: husband, son, and, of course, Cowper. Her son William’s ‘humanity’ and ‘courage’ in social campaigning occupy the latter half of her ODNB entry.
The spectacles come with a tight-fitting papier-mâché case, painted black and decorated with sprigs of roses and leaves, an echo of the ‘curling tendrils’ embroidered by the evening fireside and kept fresh by the poet’s fancy. Spectacles and case were given to Mrs Unwin’s servant at Weston Underwood (only a mile from Olney) where she and Cowper lived from 1786 to 1795. By the autumn of 1793, when Cowper wrote his verses ‘To Mary’, her health and sight were failing. Though her needles were by then stilled, ‘all thy threads with magic art / Have wound themselves about this heart’, Cowper wrote (‘To Mary’, ll. 18-19). Mary Unwin died at East Dereham, Norfolk, in December 1796, aged 73; Cowper survived her there a little more than three years.
The museum inside the writer’s house is a space observed through a distorting lens, inducing a particular cultural astigmatism. Overpopulated by the famous One, his washstand, his sofa, his writing box, his linen cap, nightshirt, and silver buckles crowd the gaze. This is what we come prepared to see; what holds our attention. Mrs Unwin’s spectacles propose another way of seeing; they open another perspective. Where do they belong in Cowper’s story? In 1989 they were displayed in Cowper’s bedroom; in 2010 they were in a case in the Parlour; in 2018 they came to settle in the Georgian Room. They belong in all these places and more.
Biographers agree that Mary Unwin’s unwavering devotion saved Cowper’s life. In 1929, David Cecil described her as ‘an Antigone’ (146), an extravagant compliment to the heroism of a woman who sacrificed her own life, in her case bringing Cowper back from the blackness of despair. His constant companion, she made his health her care, confining her own wishes and actions within the small space that represented the limits of his. On suicide watch during the worst of his depression, she slept on the floor of his bedroom; in the parlour she entertained their friends, played the harpsichord, and worked at her embroidery. She made every room safe, and Cowper repaid her dedication with his.
From his letters we learn that, in the matter of writing, Cowper is her ‘Industrious Secretary’ (9 Nov 1780 to her son William); that she loves fish—salmon most of all—and hopes for ‘an handful of prawns’ next time William sends one (26 November 1781); that the coconut from Mrs King is so delicious, she is persuaded it is better for her ‘than any thing properly called medicinal’ (18 January 1790). But Lady Hesketh has left the best description of a woman with ‘a great disposition to cheerfulness and mirth; and indeed, had she not, she could not have gone through all she has … the constant attendance, day and night … is to me, I confess, incredible!’ (Poems … with Anecdotes, 58-63).
Date: before 1795
Subject: spectacles with case owned by Mary (née Cawthorne) Unwin
Media: digital images of the objects
Media rights: copyright Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, Buckinghamshire
Object type: Oval eye pieces with one lens and one sidepiece missing. Made from metal, glass. Size 10cm x 2.5cm incomplete; with painted black papier-mâché case.
Catalogue number: OLNCN:85
John D. Baird, ‘Mary Cawthorne Unwin’, entry in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (23 September 2004); retrieved 19 May. 2020, from https://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:3030/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-28002
David Cecil, The Stricken Deer; or, The Life of William Cowper (1929; repr. London: Collins, 1965)
Letters are quoted from Electronic Enlightenment
Poems, the early productions of William Cowper; with Anecdotes of the Poet, collected from the Letters of Lady Hesketh (London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1825)