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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William Cowper’s Summer House

William Cowper's Summer House

Contributor: Joanne Reardon

Location: Olney, Milton Keynes

Description:

I catch your eye from the bottom of my garden, my hidden place.

The season smiles high in the great blue vault of the sky, the cold catches corners of the wind, whispers around my wattle and daub box. I watch you narrow-eyed, pulled down towards dust, my lilting walls tipping to the place where I keep my secrets buried deep in earth.

My damp plaster will dry in the cold bite of early Spring which my wooden door is too fickle to keep out. Crammed with too many voices dug deep into my walls, I would cover my ears, yet it hurts when they leave me. I long to hear them again, what they have to say to me, calling me out of silence.

I sense him still, sitting with a friend ‘as close pack’d as two wax figures in an old-fashioned picture frame’.

You stand outside, looking in, leaning through the half-door imagining it, the figures trapped behind glass. I know you want to release them.

You imagine, beneath his feet, the trap door, the desk above it, his shoes tapping a rhythm as he writes. You watch his words spiral outwards, unravelling as their fingertips touch the four walls, slip through the window, under the door. Always a door you think, always shut, the world on one side and he on the other.

But it wasn’t like that.

Life slips in when doors are shut. Under cover of darkness it comes: through a mole hole, a crack in the plaster, the glass in the round window hollowing will let in light from the moon, the voices on the ceiling will sing their sorrow and the names on the walls will always have stories they are waiting to tell.

If you let the outside in, it will blossom like a bee-bitten flower.

The ‘two wax figures in an old fashioned picture frame’, this tugs a memory in you of a pendant belonging to someone who loved you, long gone. A scene unfolding in a glass bowl on the end of a chain, small enough to fit like a teardrop in the palm of your hand. A whole world was living in there, a gathering of tiny wooden figures seated in a clearing, spinning threads of bright silk, trapped forever in time. A memory so small you had forgotten it, but you remember her, the woman you loved, the way she twirled you high above her head, reciting poetry, always letting the outside world in.

You leave me in the spaces between time, slowing as night approaches, falls. Mice scuttle through the grass and rain casts its spider-webbed fingers in curtains across the garden and, wait…here he comes, making his way through the pathways, trailing thoughts in his footsteps as he always does. The veil of fading light settles on my eaves as he opens the door, finds his chair waiting, his pen ready, his heart full.

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William Cowper’s Pocket Watch

William Cowper's Pocket Watch

Contributor: Will Bowers

Location: Olney, UK

Description: This watch became the property of the poet William Cowper (1731-1800) after the death of his uncle Ashley Cowper in 1788. Ashley Cowper held the prestigious office of Clerk of the Parliaments and was the subject of a famous arcadian portrait by William Hogarth, ‘Ashley Cowper with his Wife and Daughter’ (1731), now in the Tate. Ashley was the father of Theodora Cowper, and it was he who intervened to stop the marriage of William and Theodora in the 1750s on the grounds of his nephew’s limited means, and attempted to advance William’s legal career in the 1760s.

As one might expect of a man with an important station in public life, Ashley Cowper’s pocket watch is a desirable object. It is a repeater (i.e. it chimes the hour of the day when the button is depressed) mounted in a gold case, and is protected in two further cases of shagreen and brass. It was made some time between 1740 and 1788 by Thomas Martin, of the Cornhill and later at the Royal Exchange, who was made a Liveryman of the Clockmakers’ Company in 1780, and whose timepieces are held in the British Museum. At a biographical level the beautiful pocket watch represents the sophisticated political world of Ashley Cowper, one that his nephew distanced himself from at Olney, while in William Cowper’s poetry a repeater serves to ‘strike the hour’ for the many recalibrations in European thought that he prophesied for the close of the century.

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Cowper’s Windowpane

Cowper's Windowpane

Contributor: Fiona Stafford

Location: Orchard Side, Market Place, Olney, Buckinghamshire, UK, MK46 4AJ

Description: In the Cowper and Newton Museum, you can still see some of the original eighteenth-century windowpanes, flecked, blurry, bubbled and much more individual than modern mass-produced glass. It is easier to see why the poets of earlier centuries scratched poems and signatures into the windows of inns when looking at such attractive surfaces. Although William Cowper (1731-1800) was not in the habit of inscribing impromptu lines on panes of glass or, indeed, to making overnight stops in inns, the windows of this house are indirectly responsible for some of his finest poems, including The Task (1785) and ‘The Diverting History of John Gilpin’ (1785).

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