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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Sir Walter Scott’s Elbow Chair: The Seat of Power

Black and white engraving of Scott's chair, with shoes in the foreground and a cane leaning against the chair

Contributor: Kirsty Archer-Thompson F.S.A. Scot

Location: Abbotsford, Melrose, Scotland

Description: This item is a mahogany-framed elbow chair with a sloping scooped back, of the type often found in late-Georgian libraries. The seat itself has always been assumed to be real leather, but in fact it may be a very early example of imitation leather, made of layers of pulped paper coated with preservative. The seat is deep, even for a man of some stature, and it is a curiously relaxed choice to combine with the versatile architect’s desk that Walter Scott commissioned from Gillows of Lancaster in 1810. One cannot help but see a seating position more conducive to thinking or reading rather than hours spent at ‘the task’ of writing voluminous histories and novels. Although a plain piece of furniture overall, the chair has some reeded detail on the front of the frame and down the tapered legs. Evidence of a sparsely buttoned back survive in a series of small pin holes and clumps of threads, with none of the true buttons now remaining. The seat is heavily worn and the whole piece exudes an aura of robust rusticity. The maker of the chair and the exact time of its purchase is unknown, although it is likely to have been purchased from William Trotter of Edinburgh. The piece was certainly in position in Scott’s Study at Abbotsford by 1826 and may have been relocated to the property, alongside the desk, after the sale of the family’s Edinburgh home following the financial crash of 1825-6.

Almost as soon as the interior of Scott’s Abbotsford Study was finished in 1825, there was an intense interest in the space as the place from which his stories emanated, and this enthusiasm naturally settled most enthusiastically on his desk and chair as a kind of secular altar. As early as 1826, in The Border Tourist, we find the author making himself comfortable in Scott’s elbow chair where he tells us the writer is still “accustomed to sit.” Musing whilst surveying the writing paraphernalia surrounding him, he declares that future generations will “look on with an interest approaching adoration.” This was prophetic of one aspect of Scott’s transition into a cult figure of the Romantic movements across Europe and beyond.

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János Erdélyi’s Travelling Box

image of János Erdélyi's travelling box, open

Contributor: Emese Asztalos

Location: Private collection, Hungary

Description: When the poet, János Erdélyi (1814 – 1868) left Hungary in the mid-1840s to join a former pupil on his Grand Tour, he took this Travelling Box with him. The box could be held in its owner’s lap throughout the journey, and it was also appropriate to use it in a comfortless guesthouse. It has several functions: it is a writing-desk, toilet-table, treasure chest and a kind of workplace, from which Erdélyi sent reports about his travels to Hungarian journals. Beside papers, inks, correspondence, and pens, it could hide toilet accessories and secret belongings. The mirror could help with shaving, which was very important for Hungarian nobles or intellectuals, who were especially proud of their beards.

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The Table of Inkwells / La table aux encriers

Table aux quatre encriers (détail du plateau). Paris, Maison de Victor Hugo. Table of Inkwells.

Contributor: Jean-Marc Hovasse

Location: Maison de Victor Hugo, 6, place des Vosges, 75004 Paris.

Description (for English translation, scroll down): Mme Victor Hugo organisait régulièrement sous la monarchie de Juillet des loteries ou des ventes de charité au profit de bonnes œuvres. Elle continua en exil. On raconte qu’ayant croisé au marché une fillette de cinq ans qui gardait non sans périls sa petite sœur de six mois, elle eut l’idée de fonder une crèche à Guernesey, où les mères pourraient déposer leurs enfants pendant qu’elles travaillaient, au lieu de les abandonner dans la rue. Telle est l’origine du grand « Bazar » organisé pendant la dernière semaine du mois de juin 1860 à Saint-Pierre-Port. Il avait été préparé très en amont, comme en témoigne ce passage d’une lettre de Mme Victor Hugo à George Sand datée du 25 mars 1860 : « Afin que ma récolte soit bonne il me faut beaucoup d’objets, et de précieux. M. de Lamartine m’a donné un de ses encriers. Vous voyez que je suis riche déjà. Cette richesse je voudrais l’augmenter d’un encrier qui vous ait servi. Je le mettrai en pendant avec celui de l’illustre poëte. Que l’encrier soit de verre ou de cristal, de sapin ou d’érable, qu’importe, pourvu que vous y ayez trempé votre plume et que vous certifiiez par un mot qu’il vous a appartenu. »

Était-ce vraiment un encrier, ce petit vase de verre rose translucide parcouru d’arabesques d’or donné par Lamartine, avec en guise d’autographe cet alexandrin blanc étalé sur deux lignes : « Offert par Lamartine au maître de la plume » ?

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Shakespeare’s Chair and the Polish Princess

Shakespeare's Chair

Contributor: Nicola J. Watson

Location: The Princes Czartoryski Museum, Kraców, Poland.

Description: This chair is part of the original collections of the Princes Czartoryski Museum (as of December 2016 part of the Polish National Museum). It is clearly an eighteenth-century chair. It has lion claws for feet, metal snakes for arms and is ornamented idiosyncratically and expensively on the seat back with a golden lyre. Above this, an inscription in Latin reads ‘William Shakespeare’s Chair.’ At first glance, this seems entirely unlikely; however, the back of the chair conceals a surprise. Open up a hinged door and within, reverently entombed in this outer shell, you find the remains of a much older chair. This is what is left of one of ‘Shakespeare’s chairs’. The story of how it travelled from Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon to Kraców describes in little Shakespeare’s import in the Europe of the 1790s as an exemplar both of Enlightenment ideals and Romantic habits of mind.

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