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.