Cowper’s Summer House at Olney

Nominated by: Tony Seward
Watercolour by an unknown artist c. 1824 (C) Cowper & Newton Museum

My family and I came to live in Buckinghamshire in the 1970s, and working with the Cowper & Newton Museum in Olney in various capacities since then has been one of life’s great pleasures. As someone who studied Cowper at school I was, and still am, fascinated by the way in which his house and garden, and the collection at the museum, so vividly reflect his life and work.

Bucks is fortunate in having strong associations with three great English poets: John Milton, Thomas Gray, and William Cowper (1731-1800). In his lifetime, and for a generation afterwards, Cowper was the most popular poet of the day. He is remembered nowadays for his celebration of the Bucks countryside and the domestic life he shared with his partner Mary Unwin and a close circle of friends.  Especially famous is his description of a cosy winter teatime by the fire, enjoying ‘the cups that cheer but not inebriate’.

Where he also connects with our current concerns is in his love of nature and care for the environment. He kept many pets, including three hares, and was a keen – and expert – gardener. The most distinctive feature of the garden at his house, Orchard Side (now the Cowper & Newton Museum), was the summer house he used for writing in good weather. He called it his ‘verse manufactory’ and described it thus:

It is a summer-house not much bigger than a sedan chair, the door of which opens into the garden, that is now crowded with pinks, roses and honeysuckles, and the window into my neighbour’s orchard. It formerly served an apothecary… as a smoking room, and under my feet is a trap-door, which once covered a hole in the ground where he kept his bottles …Having lined it with garden seats, and furnished it with a table and two chairs, here I write …It is secure from all noise, and a refuge from intrusion…A poet’s retreat is sacred.

Cowper’s summer house is an ancestor of all those humble buildings which likewise serve as a retreat for hobbyists, writers, or for those who just want a bit of peace and quiet. Recently, the poet Simon Armitage responded to lockdown by making entertaining podcasts from his garden writing room, broadcast by the BBC as ‘The Poet Laureate Has Gone to His Shed’.  Cowper used his not only for writing but to entertain and as a smoking room for friends, keeping their pipes and tobacco in the hole under the trap-door.

Soon after his death in 1800, Olney, Orchard Side and the summer house became a place of pilgrimage for his devotees. Many signed their names on its interior walls, early graffiti which can still be seen today. It is a very fragile construction, which requires constant limewashing, repair and maintenance, a remarkable survival from the Georgian age.

The Summer House may be visited at any time during museum opening hours – see: www.cowperandnewtonmuseum.org.uk

Cowper’s Summer House was nominated by Tony Seward, former Chair of Trustees at Cowper & Newton Museum, Olney