Contributor: Clare Brant
Location: Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, Buckinghamshire, UK
Description: This tea-caddy sits among domestic objects in the Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney, Bucks UK, a house museum which for twenty years was the residence of the poet William Cowper (1731-1800). It was donated in 2019 by a family descended from Cowper’s relations though it was not one of Cowper’s own possessions.
The box was commissioned after Cowper’s death in 1800 by his friend and biographer William Hayley (1745-1820) as a way of celebrating Cowper’s life, work, sensibility and friendships.
Working with Cowper’s cousin John Johnson (later to edit Hayley’s own papers), Hayley appealed to all Cowper’s acquaintance for letters and papers out of which he planned to make a biography. Amongst the bundles he received was an unfinished poem from 1791, ‘Yardley Oak’, in which Cowper celebrates an ancient oak, imagining its life course from an acorn growing slowly into grandeur to a mighty tree then declining to a ravaged ruin.(1) Although the blank verse fragment (161 lines) points to a more moralising continuance, Cowper’s sympathies with organic process, from vulnerability to sublimity, make the oak – an actual tree that can still be located on the Ordnance Survey map – into an emblem of survival and ecological magnificence. Recognising the poem’s exceptional tree-sensitivity, Hayley was moved to extend his biography of Cowper to a third volume,(2) and to commission gifts to celebrate the poem materially. He asked a minister to send him wood from the oak, which grew in Yardley Chase, Northamptonshire; Cowper knew it well. This box was then made and ornamented with that wood by a Chichester cabinet maker, John Weller, who was also a friend of William Blake, whom Hayley had helped. Hayley also popularised the remains of the oak via the frontispiece vignette to his Supplementary Pages to the Life of Cowper (1806).
The caddy is dense with affect and allusion, combining poetry, a particular poet, the donor’s friendship with that poet and the extension of that friendship to other friends in common through the genteel sociability epitomised by tea-drinking. Unlike most lyre ornaments on furniture (see ‘Shakespeare’s Chair’), this lyre is set sideways, as if being played – or as if the oak from which it is made is falling? – and embellished with a garland of oak leaves. The inscription below adopts two half lines from Cowper’s long reflective poem The Task (1785) from Book IV, ‘The Winter’s Evening’, referring to drinking tea: ‘the cups/That cheer but not inebriate…’. This trope was enthusiastically taken up by the nineteenth-century temperance movement in the singular, promoting tea as ‘the cup that cheers’, a phrase first used in 1744 by Bishop Berkeley in praise of his health drink, tar water, but so popularised through Cowper that a later poet, Algernon Swinburne (1837-1909), could sneer at ‘the teapot pieties of Cowper’.(3) Hayley invested pieties in poetry and friendship; poetic friendship was his favourite medium, reflected in his enthusiasm for writing elegies. Overjoyed to find a significant poem by Cowper, inspired to draw on Yardley Oak itself as a medium, Hayley first wrote to John Johnson on 18th January 1804 that he would ask Weller to make ‘nice little boxes, for the toilette of the fair’.(4) Evidently changing his commission to tea-caddies, Hayley made his gifts draw more directly on the domestic virtues of Cowper’s life, and their celebration in his poetry. Shared pleasures by a winter fireside are more than snug comfort in The Task: they involve innocent domesticity (Cowper lived chastely with a fellow Christian, Mrs Unwin); trusted companionship; complicit understanding of the world at a distance and why one might prefer to keep it at a distance. Hayley was genuinely loyal to his friends, and though his own amatory life was not exactly innocent, he valued sincere feeling, especially when marked through ‘tender partiality’ such as Cowper had shown to him.
Tokens of friendship are not exclusive to either the eighteenth-century culture of sensibility or Romanticism, but the added literary signification in using the material of a poetic subject, Yardley Oak, makes the caddy a durable, intimate form of friendship whose use Romantically extends sympathy between users – including sympathetic admiration of a poet to whom the giver was devoted. The sociability of the tea table, if not the value of sober friendship, is given a Romantic veneer in Hayley’s caddy. Moreover, since Hayley’s biography of Cowper had established how the poet’s life was afflicted by religious mania and depression, the tea-caddy’s inscription of cheer would have been understood to be hard won, a positive reclaimed, rebuilt, from spiritual and mental anguish.
How did Hayley’s tea-caddy adapt Cowper’s perception of the significance of Yardley Oak? Acknowledging the popularity of oak as the patriotic core of Britain’s navy, Cowper’s poem made an oak tree even more powerful as a metaphor of old age: ‘A shattered veteran, hollow-trunked perhaps/As now, and with excoriate forks’. Long-lived trees were increasingly celebrated in the eighteenth century as people-like: when ancient, enduring yet vulnerable. Cowper encased spirit in arboreal form: ‘I might with reverence kneel and worship thee’, and evinces a Romantic awareness of the natural world whose long history is symbolised by the longevity of an ancient oak. That Hayley procured a chunk of such a tree to make ‘nice little boxes’ which condense the power of memory into the consumer culture of souvenirs does not wholly extinguish Cowper’s invocation of the acorn-Oak’s ‘embryo vastness’; its ‘vegetative force’ as sapling; the ‘wens globose’ of its enormous girth; the metaphysical neediness of its ‘huge throat calling to the clouds for drink’; the stout spurs, knotted fangs and crooks of its shell. ‘Yardley Oak’s meditation on outdoor time finds a correlative indoors in tea-time; the poem’s concern with change, which at last destroys all changeable things, is solidified into an heirloom.
Creator: John Weller
Subject: Hayley, William [1745-1820]; Cowper, William [1731-1800]
Media rights: Cowper and Newton House, Olney, UK
Object type: tea-caddy; memorial object
Format: wood, leather, metal hinges, oak ornament, painted inscription
Language: inscription in English
Publisher: Cowper and Newton Museum.
Digital collection record: OLNCN:4344
Catalogue number: E2019/8
- William Cowper, ‘Yardley Oak’ (1791 ms): text at https://romantic-circles.org/editions/poets/texts/yardleyoak.html; see also Christopher Middleton’s commentary with poem text, 20 April 2020, at https://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?showdoc=21;doctype=2
- William Hayley, The Life and Posthumous Writings of William Cowper, 1803-4, 3 vols. (Chichester: J. Seagrave)
- Algernon Swinburne, William Blake: A Critical Essay. 1868 (London: John Camden Hotten) p.5
- Memoirs of the Life and Writings of William Hayley, Esq. 1823, 2 vols. Ed. John Johnson. (London: Henry Colburn & Co.), ii, p. 148