Written by Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian
Tucked away in one of our archive boxes is an envelope which contains a small, folded piece of paper which, when opened carefully, reveals a tiny fragment of netting, woven from fine string (University of Reading Special Collections MS 12) [see image below]. It is attached to the paper by four pieces of red sealing wax. The paper has been folded and addressed To Mrs Jenning(?) With most affectionate and grateful regard.
Beneath the netting, a slip of paper has been attached upon which is written the line – ‘Thus, all their plan adjusted, diff’rent ways/They took,’. Beneath this, in another, perhaps later, maybe nineteenth-century, hand, is written the following:
This netting was made by the Poet Cowper, his ‘The Task’ – “Weaving nets for bird-alluring fruit &” – The hand writing is also The Poet’s, being a part of his Homer.
Attested by Maria D. Johnson – widow of The Poet’s beloved kinsman – Dr Johnson. The seal, of which these hares are the impression, was the gift of the Princess Elizabeth to the late Lady Hesketh, and bequeathed by her in her will to the late Dr Johnson’.
William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) (1731–1800) [see portrait below] was one of the most popular poets of his time. He was influential in the development of eighteenth-century nature poetry, drawing on scenes from everyday life and the English countryside, and was admired by other poets including Coleridge, Wordsworth and Blake.
His most substantial poetic work was The Task, a poem in blank verse which begins by focusing on the origins of the sofa, but develops into a meditation on a wide variety of subjects, including nature, the retired life and religious faith, and includes attacks on slavery, the clergy and blood sports. However, he regarded his translations of Homer’s Iliadand Odyssey into blank verse as his greatest achievement. The handwritten line on the slip of paper beneath the netting is from Cowper’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey, and, according to the inscription, was written in Cowper’s hand. I have not yet investigated what link the line from Homer might have with the piece of netting.
Cowper suffered from bouts of severe depression throughout his life, and was institutionalised for insanity in the period 1763–65. However, he had close friendships with his cousins, the writer John Johnson and Lady Harriett Hesketh (both mentioned in the inscription). According to Thomas Wright, one of Cowper’s biographers, Lady Hesketh stayed with the poet during one of his periods of mental illness in 1794/95. During this time she wrote in a letter that during the winter of 1794/95 he seemed to improve, and that she was “able to get him to employ himself with “little avocations, such as netting, putting maps together, playing with the solitary board, &c.” Perhaps this little piece of netting was produced by Cowper as a therapeutic pastime to distract him during this period? As an appendix to his biography of Cowper, Wright includes a list of ‘Some relics of Cowper and their present owners (1892)’ which includes some ‘netting done by Cowper’, owned by the Rev. W. Cowper Johnson, junior, which, along with other relics of Cowper including his cap (worn by the poet when writing), was ‘exhibited in the Guelph Exhibition, 1891.’ It is not known if this piece of netting is the same as ours.
On closer examination, three of the four seals appear to feature a tiny image of a hare as mentioned in the inscription. The seal fob which is likely to have made these seal impressions is held by the Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney in Buckinghamshire. As Nicola Durbridge notes in an article about the seal fob on the Museum’s website, “the seals are carved with representations of Cowper’s three tame hares. Cowper nurtured these hares whilst he lived at Orchard Side, Olney and they were a great source of entertainment and companionship. Their names are incised on the seals: Puss, Bess and Tiney. Cowper published a long letter about his hare-keeping which gives us such a vivid picture of their characters and habits …”.
Durbridge also mentions that the seal fob “originally belonged to Lady Hesketh who had been given it by Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of George III and Queen Charlotte. Harriot moved in courtly circles and apparently met Princess Elizabeth whilst at Weymouth. For such a gift to have been made, Harriot must have become quite well acquainted with the Princess and regaled her at some point with stories of Cowper’s domesticated hares”. This confirms the information given in the inscription under the piece of netting. I cannot see any names above the images of the hares, but the creatures themselves can quite clearly be seen in three of the examples.
This piece of netting was one of our earliest archive acquisitions, but its provenance is unknown. I will be contacting the Cowper and Newton Museum to let them know about our curious little piece of Cowper memorabilia, and also to see if they can shed any light on the identity of the writer of the explanatory inscription, who Mrs Jenning(?) was and what link, if any, they had with William Cowper …
With thanks to Verity Andrews and Nancy Fulford, former members of the Special Collections archives team, for making this ‘discovery’ in the archive collections!
Durbridge, Nicola. Lady Hesketh’s seal fob : a material world. (Olney : The Cowper and Newton Museum, 2012. (Accessed 16.03.2016).
King, James. William Cowper : a biography. (Durham, N.C. : Duke University Press, 1986). University Library STACK–821.65-KIN
Wright, Thomas. The life of William Cowper. (London : T. Fisher Unwin, 1892). University Library STORE–57796