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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Petrarch’s Inkstand

Image of Petrach's inkstand.-  the lid decorate with a seated Cupid, inscribed to the underside ‘PETRARCH’S INKSTAND’ and with a ten-line poem beneath, ‘By beauty won from soft Italia’s land’, enclosing a gilt brass inkwell, the compressed spherical body applied with masks, on three paw supports, 17 cm highGold

Contributor: Nicola J. Watson

Location: Current whereabouts of object unknown

Description: In February 2008, this object came up for auction at a sale of selected contents of Clothall House, Hertfordshire and of items from The Savoy Hotel run by Bonham’s Auctioneers in London. The auction catalogue described it as ‘A 19th century gilt bronze European Tour souvenir model of ‘Petrarch’s inkstand.’ It sold for £60 to a private collector, a figure that registers its catastrophic decline in cultural import since the date of its manufacture, sometime between the first half of the nineteenth century when Petrarch’s reputation was running high on the tides of Romantic taste and the 1870s when such items were being mass-produced. At the outset of the century, such an item would have been made to special commission to describe an intellectual or sentimental affinity. In brokering and making visible an imaginary conversation between the dead and the living, ‘Petrarch’s inkstand’ was one of a number of inkstands that constructed a transnational notion of Romantic posterity.

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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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A Christmas Entertainment in London, Jan 11th, 1826

Pantomime playbill, 1826, for Harlequin and the Magick Rose: or, Beauty and the Beast, Theatre-Royal, Covent Garden.

Contributor: Nicola J. Watson

Location: Theatre Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Description: Nearly two hundred years ago today, you might have attended this post-Christmas entertainment at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in London. The programme characteristically offered a straight piece (here, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Duenna) but it also included a ‘new, grand & comick’ pantomime staged by the famous composer, arranger and producer of such shows, Charles Farley (1771-1859). As nowadays, pantomime in the Regency was one of the more idiosyncratically and resolutely British forms of national popular theatre and an integral part of Christmas festivities. But, as this playbill suggests, British pantomime also drew heavily upon European literary tradition and theatrical practice, even as it staged Britain’s relation to the rest of the world in topical, patriotic and even imperialist mode.

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Rousseau’s Trapdoor

 

Location: Restaurant and Hôtel de l’Île St Pierre, Lac de Bienne, Switzerland

Contributor: Nicola J. Watson

Description: A wooden trapdoor set within the floor in the corner of a first-floor bedroom in the sole farmhouse on the Île St Pierre in the Lac de Bienne, Switzerland. Both its date of origin and original use are obscure. It achieved celebrity in the last decade of the eighteenth century through its association with the philosopher, novelist and essayist Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and in particular with his posthumously published autobiographical writings, both the latter part of the Confessions (published first in 1789) and the volume of essays entitled Les Rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire (composed between 1776 and 1778, published in 1782). Continue reading “Rousseau’s Trapdoor”

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