The Repton Gazette and Brown Advisor

300 Frequently Asked Questions about Capability Brown, and a further 200 about Humphry Repton

1835: was William Cowper an influence?

Oofy here: Editorial: Cowper. Deal with it.

A gloss from the Type-Setter. Our editor’s instruction has fallen in with an inquiry of Mrs L.B of Winchester as to whether John Clare, or his fellow poet, William Cowper, had a greater influence on the designs of Humphry Repton. It is a question to which I immediately drew the attention of the Professor, and I am happy to attach his response.

‘One might first ask what it was that made the East Midlands of England such a happy ground for verse during Repton’s time, and then immediately observe that Repton never mentioned Clare in any of his works, and barely mentioned Cowper, stooping to a quotation only in his red book for Endsleigh. Cowper advocated a life of quiet gentility, of simplicity, in short of the cottage – that is, a cottage elevated by simple good taste and judgement above the mere cottage, in short a cottage orné.

One then asks which poet was most loved by the novelist Jane Austen, and the answer will be William Cowper, if it was not George Crabbe. Her brother Henry Austen was in no doubt: “Her favourite moral writers were Johnson in prose, and Cowper in verse”, while to Crabbe, she sometimes thought, she would have liked to be married.

These men (that is Cowper and Crabbe) wrote of cottage life, and Jane Austen lived in what might be known as cottages. Here is the house in which she grew up, remembered by her nephew and published in her collected works*: “The house itself stood in a shallow valley, surrounded by sloping meadows, well sprinkled with elm trees, at the end of a small village of cottages, each well provided with a garden, scattered about prettily on either side of the road.  It was sufficiently commodious to hold pupils in addition to a growing family, and was in those times considered to be above the average of parsonages; but the rooms were finished with less elegance than would now be found in the most ordinary dwellings.  No cornice marked the junction of wall and ceiling; while the beams which supported the upper floors projected into the rooms below in all their naked simplicity, covered only by a coat of paint or whitewash.”

She moved in 1809 to Chawton Cottage, formerly the steward’s house, where she rewrote Sense and Sensibility, which was published two years later. Barton Cottage, the home of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, “though small, was comfortable and compact; but as a cottage it was defective, for the building was regular, the roof was tiled, the window shutters were not painted green, nor were the walls covered with honeysuckles”. In short it was a mere cottage, such as Cowper would have admired, when it should have been a cottage orné.

Robert Ferrars would have been of a mind: “’You reside in Devonshire, I think … in a cottage near Dawlish.’

Elinor set him right as to its situation; and it seemed rather surprising to him that anybody could live in Devonshire, without living near Dawlish. He bestowed his hearty approbation however on their species of house.

’For my own part,’ said he, ‘I am excessively fond of a cottage; there is always so much comfort, so much elegance about them. And I protest, if I had any money to spare, I should buy a little land and build one myself, within a short distance of London, where I might drive myself down at any time, and collect a few friends about me, and be happy. I advise every body who is going to build, to build a cottage. My friend Lord Courtland came to me the other day on purpose to ask my advice, and laid before me three different plans of Bonomi’s. I was to decide on the best of them. “My dear Courtland,” said I, immediately throwing them all into the fire, “do not adopt either of them, but by all means build a cottage.” And that I fancy, will be the end of it.

’Some people imagine that there can be no accommodations, no space in a cottage; but this is all a mistake. I was last month at my friend Elliott’s, near Dartford. Lady Elliott wished to give a dance. “But how can it be done?” said she; “my dear Ferrars, do tell me how it is to be managed. There is not a room in this cottage that will hold ten couple, and where can the supper be?” I immediately saw that there could be no difficulty in it, so I said, “My dear Lady Elliott, do not be uneasy. The dining parlour will admit eighteen couple with ease; card-tables may be placed in the drawing-room; the library may be open for tea and other refreshments; and let the supper be set out in the saloon.” Lady Elliott was delighted with the thought. We measured the dining-room, and found it would hold exactly eighteen couple, and the affair was arranged precisely after my plan. So that, in fact, you see, if people do but know how to set about it, every comfort may be as well enjoyed in a cottage as in the most spacious dwelling.’

Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.”

A couple in Persuasion did realise the ideal of the cottage orné: having married Mary Elliot, Charles Musgrove took a house at Uppercross, which “upon the marriage of the young ‘squire, … had received the improvement of a farm-house elevated into a cottage for his residence; and Uppercross Cottage, with its viranda, French windows, and other prettinesses, was quite as likely to catch the traveller’s eye, as the more consistent and considerable aspect and premises of the Great House, about a quarter of a mile farther on.”

Jane Austen was happy to make jokes against herself and her life in a cottage, she had no position to keep up and she could acknowledge her affection for Cowper. Repton also lived in a cottage, but only in his latter works was he able to acknowledge the pleasure it brought him. He began his career with the easy assumptions of his class and times, but came to question them all eventually: might he not have been the first gentleman, but for the reclusive, to live in a cottage, when he moved to Hare Street in 1788? Would he have felt himself to be too much the butt of the jokes of Jane Austen and her kind? Would he not have wanted, for most of his career, to distance himself from such as Cowper, Crabbe and Clare?’  [Notes from the Professor, trans. the Type-Setter]

* A gloss from the Type-Setter. It will be a great assistance to readers of these notes to know something of the pinched circumstances in which the Professor grew up. The only English book in his house was a volume of the collected works of Jane Austen with pages 225-248 missing. His thoughts on the work of Humphry Repton are generously enriched by his close reading of this text. Any irritation he displays may be ascribed to the deep wound inflicted on him by those missing pages.

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3 Comments

  1. David Neal

    How spooky. I’m currently researching the history of Panshanger Park, including the Cowpers, Desboroughs, Repton, Brown et al. Many of the Cowpers were called William, which confused me from the headline. However, on reading the article I see which one you mean.

  2. David Neal

    Oh, and you need to add Panshanger to you list of Places.

    • The Brown Advisor

      Dear David, thank you very much for your comment. I have circulated a list of all the sites that I know of that are attributed to Repton. The list of sites on the blog just comprises those that have thus far got a mention on the blog.
      Best of luck with Panshanger – I was there last week – there’s so much still to enjoy there, despite all the wreckage.

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