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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A Lock of Goethe’s Hair

A lock of hair framed with a portrait in an oval, gold frame.

Contributors: Nick Hearn and Susan Reynolds

Location: Taylor Institution Library, Oxford, UK

Description: The Taylor Institution Library has many treasures – chiefly books — but among the many rare and valuable items in the Rare Books Room one stands out. It is the item recorded in the catalogue with the shelfmark MS.8º.G.26. It is not a book or a manuscript as the shelf-mark would suggest but a lock of hair – supposedly a lock of Goethe’s hair! So it would seem that in the Taylor Institution Library, not only do we have an extensive collection of works by and about the greatest of all German poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), but in the depths of the library in our Rare Books Room, we have a lock of the great man’s hair! It is most likely the slip of paper with the portrait which has been classified. The little portrait, an oval piece of paper with a simple line drawing of Goethe added later is, however, an understated minimally delineated presence possibly sketched by the same person who put the sprig of hair in that gilded frame.

The star attraction – the main event — is that elongated wispy sprig of hair delicately piercing the backing paper below and itself framing a faded bloom. There are two inscriptions accompanying the lock of hair – one of them, the older one, mentions the time of year – March. It seems likely, as Professor Henrike Laehnemann notes, that the dried flower is a violet, given the time of year mentioned on the accompanying inscription. It is an intriguing ensemble – portrait, violet, lock of hair accompanied rather like some medieval relic by two inscriptions testifying to its authenticity like a secular equivalent of the medieval cedula where the name of a saint was noted and then tied to the relic.

What is the origin of these items? What do they mean? Can it really be true that this is a lock of Goethe’s hair? How did the Taylor Institution Library come by … a lock of Goethe’s hair? Is it authentic? To begin to answer these questions we must look at the inscriptions.

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A Lock of Goethe’s Hair

A lock of hair framed with a portrait in an oval, gold frame.

A Lock of Goethe’s Hair

(cut on 2nd March 1823, now in the Taylor Institution Library, Oxford)

Clear as melt-water, the March air flows into the room,
Carrying the delicate notes of the birds’ first thin calls
In that garden in Weimar. The Herr Geheimrat, propped high
On his bulwark of pillows, the doctor dismissed at last,
Waits for his barber. Time to be tidy and kempt,
Fit for the salon, although his condition is still
Fragile as Meissen, and weaker than camomile tea.
The cold blade slides down his neck, gliding, and with it there falls,
As his dead hair scatters, the years of his well-worn past –
Italy, Frankfurt, the court and the theatre, the verse –
`One lock – as a favour?’ Yes – far in the past, those old Greeks,
They cut off a curl of their hair as a gift to the dead,
And the Roman boys severed a strand at their coming-of-age…
Outside, Frau von Goethe, her wholesome cheeks shiny and scrubbed
As a winter apple, goes bustling, shuffles and scolds.
Excellent woman! He thinks of Charlotte von Stein –
Her pale smile, ironic, her manners, that filigree cage
Of etiquette, trapping a passion that fluttered and cried…
Whose are those voices? Next door, or much farther away,
One, like a violin, springs in a light curving arc
While Mozart’s viola responds in its full rolling tone:
`…cut from the head of the poet as he convalesced…’
The barber is gleaning the scatterings in a white towel,
Murmurs excuses – but under the crop that remains
New rhythms and phrases are stirring, as down in the park
The tentative fronds are uncurling around the oak’s roots.
Yes, one slip of hair is a sacrifice he can afford,
In thanks to the Fates who have spared him their shears – just for now.

by Susan Reynolds

Read the blog post on Goethe’s Hair here.