Sir Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen, c. 1851

Painting of a stag

Contributor: Fanny Lacôte

Location: Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland

Description: The painting The Monarch of the Glen (c. 1851), by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873), has become a quintessentially Scottish image. The most ‘[…] potent, visual evocation of Scotland’s impact upon the popular imagination’, according to Scottish artist Lachlan Goudie, ‘it’s right up there with bagpipes, tartan and a mouthful of shortbread’. Until 2017, The Monarch of the Glen remained in private and corporate collections. Following a public appeal in 2016, the National Galleries of Scotland purchased the painting from the Diageo drinks conglomerate for £4 million.

Its iconic dimension set aside, The Monarch of the Glen is also a late expression of the Romantic era, and Sir Edwin Landseer’s homage to Highland Romanticism. The English romantic artist became a regular visitor to Scotland from 1824 onwards, combining hunting expeditions with sketching trips. Commissioned to hang in the House of Lords refreshment rooms, The Monarch of the Glen was painted in Landseer’s studio in London, and is considered a triumph of Victorian Romanticism. The English work crystallised romantic representations of the Scottish Highlands, with its wilderness, its sublime landscapes and sweeping vistas, castles, waterfalls, and herds of deer.

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Percy Bysshe Shelley’s copy of Homer’s Odyssey

image of two copies of Homer, bound in red, on their sides

Contributor: Valentina Varinelli

Location: Keats-Shelley House, Rome

Description: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s copy of Homer’s Odyssey is on long-term loan to Keats-Shelley House, Rome, from the present Lord Abinger, the Shelleys’ heir. Homer occupied a pre-eminent position in Shelley’s personal canon, yet the existence of this copy is largely unknown. It consists of volumes 3 and 4 of the so-called ‘Grenville Homer’ (1801) bound together in one volume (the complete set would have included volumes 1 and 2, again bound in one volume, which comprised the Iliad), and it is contained in a custom-made red quarter-leather solander box with “Homer Odyssey” and “Shelley’s Copy” gold-tooled on the spine, which is both an indication and a product of the fetishisation of this volume. The recto of the second front fly-leaf is inscribed: “Percy Bysshe Shelley March 5 – 1816”. (However, the inscription is not Shelley’s autograph. Nora Crook has established that it is in fact in Mary Shelley’s hand of 1816 (private email communication).)

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An Opening in a Holland House Dinner Book

image of an open manuscript book

Contributor: Will Bowers

Location: British Library, London.

Description: This opening occurs in the first of the dinner books kept at Holland House, Kensington, in which Elizabeth Vassall-Fox (Lady Holland, 1771-1845) recorded who dined at the house between 1799 and 1845. The coterie that gathered at this Jacobean mansion, then on the outskirts of west London, kept alive the flame of Charles James Fox, the uncle of Henry Richard Vassall-Fox (Lord Holland, 1749-1806). The group continued Fox’s desire for reform, especially his fight for the emancipation of slaves and Catholics, his opposition to European wars, and his support of global freedom movements. The international dimension of these concerns meant the house was a kind of alternative foreign office for liberal culture and politics, receiving European authors and politicians who it was hoped would spread Foxite principles aboard. The centre of exchange for this group was the dining room, in which Lady Holland played the chatelaine, entertaining the leading cultural figures of Romantic culture. Her eight assiduously kept dinner books, which Leslie Mitchell neatly describes as ‘catalogues of talent’, document forty-five years of the salon. (Mitchell, 35)

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A Ha’pennyworth of Sedition, 1796

Image of a metal coin with the bust of John Thelwall in profile on one side and a figure in chains and a padlock on the other

Contributor: Alice Rhodes

Location: The British Museum, London, UK

Description: In the 1790s, Britain was quite literally short on change. Insufficient supply of official coinage from the Royal Mint, combined with high levels of counterfeit money, led many business owners to issue their own coins, in order to pay increasingly large workforces. These private tokens, also known as commercial coins or Conder tokens, quickly became far more than currency. Free from official regulation, capable of being stamped with almost any design, and specifically intended to be circulated locally, they were soon used to advertise almost everything, from menageries to lawyers. And it was these same qualities which made them apt to carry political messages. This 1796 token, minted by Thomas Spence in the wake of the 1795 “Gagging Acts” features an image of radical orator John Thelwall on one side and an image of a “Free-born Englishman”, with shackled limbs and padlocked mouth on the other. But what can this coin say in 1796 that a “free-born Englishman” can’t?

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A poster advertising the opening of William Cowper’s house in Olney as a museum, 1900

A poster advertising the opening of William Cowper’s house in Olney as a museum, 1900

Contributor: Nicola J. Watson

Location: Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney

Description: On 25 April 1900, the centenary of the death of the English poet and hymnodist William Cowper (1731-1800), his house Orchardside was presented by its then owner to the town of Olney as a public museum. Cowper’s house would become one of the earlier writer’s house museums in Britain, part of a cluster of such openings at the end of the century which included Dove Cottage in 1891. These came out of a strengthening desire to celebrate an intimate relation between literature and the national landscape, a Romantic mentality that had found its first widespread expression in Britain and Europe during Cowper’s own lifetime. The programme of celebratory events laid out here is eloquent of the meanings that the figure of Cowper had shed and accumulated over the century since his death. It is perhaps also inadvertently eloquent of the extent to which Cowper has since fallen out of the accepted canon of Romantic poetry.

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A Lace Boudoir Cap and Lace Undersleeves

A lace boudoir cap and lace undersleeves

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.

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Mrs Unwin’s Spectacles

Mrs Unwin's spectacles

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.

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William Cowper’s garden netting: weaving nets for bird-alluring fruit

Cowper's Garden Netting

Contributor: Stephen Bending

Location: unknown

Description: As a souvenir, this small square of garden netting signals the peculiarly domestic nature of William Cowper (1731-1800) as a poet. Made by Cowper and his household, the tied strands of thread seem trivial perhaps—a quirky, amusingly antiquarian delight. But that triviality is also an announcement of authenticity. In it we are given a little piece of Cowper—the net is not simply an object, but an act, a winter evening’s task, part of the fabric of Cowper’s life. The net is ephemeral (but it has lasted), domestic (but it is treasured), it is the product of careful labour, and in its small way it recognises Cowper’s garden—or any garden—as a place of tenuous and temporary delight.

Samuel Johnson’s pleasing definition of a network as ‘the intersection of interstices’ offers us an insight into the peculiar nature of nets – at once the twine and the holes between the twine, where each is as important as the other but where the net is neither one nor the other. Nets, that is, are nothing if not liminal, and they help us to understand both Cowper’s retirement and his fascination with the world from which he retired, both his sense of being a part of nature and his recognition that—like all men—he was separated from it.

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William Cowper’s Shaving Mirror

William Cowper's Shaving Mirror

Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, 3945

William Cowper’s Shaving Mirror

It is morning and the poet
still in white nightshirt
is shaving

at his washstand, a mirror
catches his bedroom
backwards

adding a sliver of town
all-night drunks stumbling
out of the Red Lion

the poet’s face is long and bony
wide mouth, soft eyes are sensitive
his faculties are god-given

every day, scrape away
sin
a mirror within

every morning he looks in his shaving mirror
to perceive himself
as cheek and chin

no mark of sin
upon cheek and chin
upon throat his hand trembles slightly

percussive birdsong merely
blackbird hymn
praising the God of Light and upper lip

he dips his blade in cold water
his skin stiffens
his nightshirt is thin

whinny of horses beyond
clatter of pattens below
rustle of leaves, spit-splat of rain

every morning
new promise, good faith
benediction of cheek and chin

every morning this mirror frames his face
his face fills this mirror
innocent

his hands are clean
our Redeemer’s blood
all washed away

leaving love
of God
of shaven cheek and chin.

Clare Brant

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