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.

Reflection: Retreat has long been held as a key to creativity. The psychiatrist Anthony Storr in his influential book ‘Solitude’ (1988), wrote that: ‘nearly all kinds of creative people, in adult life [show] some avoidance of others, some need of solitude’. In his poem The Task (1786), William Cowper (1731-1800) longed for a ‘peaceful covert’ where he could ‘possess/The poet’s treasure, silence, and indulge/The dreams of fancy, tranquil and secure’ (Book I 234-236). The summer house in the garden of his home in Olney became that place.

Coming across the summer house, tucked away in its corner of the garden, feels almost transgressive, as though intruding on the writer at work. The house is slightly awkward, tilted on its axis. In summer the borders will be as Cowper saw them, ‘crowded with pinks, roses and honeysuckles’ (letter to Joseph Hill, 1785) but seeing them now bereft after winter, the house’s role as a contrived space seems to represent a kind of desperate hope that must be fulfilled for imagination to flourish. This hope comes with the arrival of spring and the start of a retreat which banishes the outside world with its ‘bay of curs/Incessant, clinking hammers, grinding wheels’ (Book 1 230-231), but as Cowper wrote to Lady Hesketh in 1786 ‘intrusion sometimes troubles me even at Olney’. One can shut out the world but at some point, the world will ask to be admitted.

This idea of tranquillity and security treasured and compromised became the theme of my creative response to the summer house. The walls of the tiny room are covered with names, mementoes from visitors, some as old as the 1800s some more recent. The walls might be man-made but the floor is bare soil, the trapdoor leads to a hole in the ground as though the house is growing out of the earth, a reminder of its impermanence and our own mortality.

Writing to his cousin Lady Hesketh in 1786, Cowper used the metaphor of ‘two wax figures in an old fashioned picture frame’, to describe how they would sit in his summer house on her visit, ‘close pack’d’. Surveying the tiny space, my impression is more of a poet trapped within his own ideal of retreat. The image of a trapped figure triggered a memory – a pendant owned by my grandmother, a glass globe containing little wooden figures in a pastoral setting with which I was entranced as a young child, wanting to release them.

Ekphrasis as an exchange between the visual and written element where the writer turns what they see into a verbalised account of a lived experience, is at the centre of this creative response. The summer house invited an ekphrastic response whereby the house is given a voice and talks to the writer, inviting the writer to imagine the space as Cowper did. Finally, an exchange of the conscious with the unconscious self which is at the heart of ekphrasis brought my memory of the pendant and the figure of Cowper who is released and actualised at the end of the piece.

Date: unknown, pre-1784

Creator: Thomas Asprey

Subject: William Cowper

Media rights: Cowper and Newton Museum

Object type: out-building

Format: wood, glass, slate

Publisher: Cowper and Newton Museum


The Summer House was not purpose built as a writing retreat but was originally built for Cowper’s neighbour, Thomas Asprey, an apothecary who died in 1784.