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William Cowper’s Gardens

Cowper’s Summer House engraved by James Storer.
‘Had I the choice of sublunary good,
What could I wish that I possess not here?’ Book III, The Task

It’s probably fair to say that William Cowper’s poetry is not as well known today as that of Wordsworth or Coleridge, the Romantic poets he is said to have influenced.  But in his lifetime Cowper was hugely successful, with copies of his epic poem The Task running to multiple editions.  Cowper’s love of the English rural landscape, and his appreciation of gardens is well recorded both in his poetry and in accounts of his life.

In The Garden, (Book III, The Task) Cowper celebrates the gardener’s skill in sowing seeds, planning flower borders and pruning, but is withering about the large scale improvement of gardens, and costly changes made to the landscape by figures like Capability Brown:

Improvement too, the idol of the age,
Is fed with many a victim. Lo, he comes!
Th’ omnipotent magician, Brown, appears!
Down falls the venerable pile, th’ abode
Of our forefathers — a grave whisker’d race,
But tasteless. Springs a palace in its stead,
But in a distant spot; where, more expos’d, ⁠
It may enjoy th’ advantage of the north,
And aguish east, till time shall have transform’d
Those naked acres to a shelt’ring grove.
He speaks. The lake in front becomes a lawn;
Woods vanish, hills subside, and valleys rise:
And streams, as if created for his use,
Pursue the track of his directing wand,
Sinuous or straight, now rapid and now slow,
Now murm’ring soft, now roaring in cascades —
Ev’n as he bids! Th’ enraptured owner smiles. ⁠
‘Tis finish’d, and yet, finish’d as it seems,
Still wants a grace, the loveliest it could show,
A mine to satisfy th’ enormous cost.
Drain’d to the last poor item of his wealth,
He sighs, departs, and leaves th’ accomplish’d plan
That he has touch’d, retouch’d, many a long day
Labour’d, and many a night pursu’d in dreams,
Just when it meets his hopes, and proves the heav’n
He wanted, for a wealthier to enjoy!

William Cowper (1731 – 1800) worked in the legal profession in London, for which he seems to have felt ill suited, and after experiencing a personal crisis, was moved by his family to St Albans for treatment where he stayed until 1765.  After his recovery Cowper lived in Olney where he formed a friendship with John Newton (they wrote hymns together) and then in nearby Weston Underwood where he wrote some of his best known poetry.

Such was Cowper’s continuing popularity in the years shortly after his death in 1800, an illustrated guide book was published by Islington based engravers James Storer and John Greig.  Cowper, illustrated by a series of views, in, or near, the Park of Weston-Underwood, Bucks (1804) provides a commentary on the poet’s life, information about Cowper’s house and garden, and identifies key locations in Weston Park mentioned in The Task that the general public could visit.  This detailed account gives valuable insight into the design of gardens from this period, including the plants and features used.  The authors also describe changes to the gardens and landscape since Cowper’s time, and reveal that the ‘fav’rite elms, That screen the herdsman’s solitary hut;’ (from Book I of The Task) were in fact poplar trees.

The book opens with an engraving (above) of Cowper’s summer house, which he used in the summer months as quiet place to write.  According to Cowper, this tiny building had previously been used by an apothecary, and its dimensions are recorded as being six feet nine inches by five feet five.  Cowper accessed this building from his walled garden by crossing a neighbour’s orchard.

In this wall a door was opened, which being separated from his garden by an orchard, he rented a passage across the latter, for which he paid one guinea per annum: from this circumstance the place was called Guinea Field.

The section of the book which describes Weston Park (belonging to George Courntenay) and its surroundings begins with an invitation to walk with the authors, taking in scenes that would have been familiar to Cowper:

We propose, therefore, to follow him with as little deviation as possible in his ramble; and as there are many who may wish to gratify themselves with a sight of the places to which he has given celebrity, who are unacquainted with a way so indirect, we shall, for their accommodation, return by the road, and, by this proceeding, give a ready clue to every object.

The first place of interest is the Peasant’s Nest, a cottage referred to by Cowper in The Task and this view is taken from the high walk in the park, the only place from which it can be seen to advantage.  If you look very closely, there are three men harvesting corn in the field in front of the cottage.

The Peasant’s Nest
‘Oft have I wish’d the peaceful covert mine.’

The next stop is a rustic bridge, built some sixty years previously for the purpose of keeping up a piece of water in the Park: it spans a deep brook, forming a scene remarkable for its wild and romantic beauty, which, after winding its latent course along the bottom of a woody vale, meanders through the Park ..

(Our concept of ‘wild’ nature must have changed in two hundred years, as the scene in the engraving is, to modern eyes, one of pastoral tranquility).

The Rustic Bridge

The alcove, which was erected at the same time as the bridge is reached via a steep path shaded by oaks and elms.  In the engraving it looks as though the avenue of trees is being extended, with wooden structures arranged around the trunks of sapling trees to prevent them being damaged by cattle.

The Alcove from the Avenue.
‘How airy and how light the graceful arch’

View from the Alcove.
‘ – Now roves the eye:
And, posted on this speculative height,
Exults in its command.’

The area around the alcove is protected from sheep by a chain link fence, inside of which is a border of shrubs and flowers.

The Wilderness.
‘Here, unmolested through whatever sign
The sun proceeds, I wander.’

From the Avenue we enter the Wilderness by an elegant gate, constructed after the Chinese manner.  On the left is the statue of a lion, finely carved in a recumbent posture; this is placed on a basement, at the end of a grassy walk, which is shaded by yews and elms, mingled with the drooping foliage of the laburnum, and adorned with wreaths of flaunting woodbine;

The urn in the engraving contains the ashes of one of George Courtenay’s favourite dogs, with an inscription by Cowper.

The Temple in the Wilderness.
‘Whose well roll’d walks
With curvature of slow and easy sweep’

In front of the Temple is a hexagon plat, surrounded with a beautiful variety of evergreens, flowering shrubs, and elms, whose stems are covered with a mantle of venerable ivy.

Weston Lodge
The Residence of the late William Cowper Esq

The authors disapprove of changes made to Cowper’s garden at Weston Lodge:

..it has a good kitchen garden, and an orchard, which was formerly Cowper’s Shrubbery; but the pursuits of its present possessor differing, in some degree, from those of the poet, every appearance of this kind is obliterated, except that an officious flower occasionally rears its head, and, in tacit terms, upbraids the destroyers of such a scene.

Weston House
(from the Grove)
The Seat of George Courtenay Esq

The Elms
‘There, fast rooted in their bank,
Stand never overlook’d our fav’rite elms,
That screen the herdsman’s solitary hut;’

Out of respect for Cowper, the authors have called this stand of trees The Elms, which they believe are in fact poplars:

In compliance with our intention to illustrate the poet, we have retained the name he has conferred, though we were convinced, from ocular demonstration, it was erroneous; and have also received a communication from Mr Courtenay, who observes, that Cowper wrote the passage in The Task, which refers to these trees, under the influence of a mistake, and he had often told him of the circumstance.

The Shrubbery
‘The Saint or Moralist should tread’
This moss grown alley.’

Many of the lines related to gardens in The Task suggest Cowper recognised their healing qualities.  The Moss House was a place of silence Cowper valued as a retreat when his feelings were at a low ebb, and he placed a board inside containing lines of his poetry.  The original board was stolen, so was replaced with another containing these lines from The Task:

No noise is here, or none that hinders thought.
Stillness, accompanied with sounds so soft,
Charms more than silence.  Meditation here
May think down hours to moments.  Here the heart
May give a useful lesson to the head,
And Learning wiser grow without his books.

Further Reading:

Cowper, Illustrated by a series of views

The Task by William Cowper

William Cowper (The Poetry Foundation)

Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney

James Storer, engraver