Public Art Collections in North West England:
Wordsworth and Grasmere Museum.

Art Last Friday’s trip to the Wordsworth and Grasmere Museum felt more like a holiday, albeit one which lasted about five an a half hours not including watching the view from the train or bus whilst travelling. Some of this had to do with being able to spend five and a half hours in the place not as concerned about needing to rush back for the train. Much of this had to do with the sheer effortlessness of the time I spent at the Wordsworth Museum (as it is now), where the staff are knowledgeable and helpful, the exhibition itself well designed and I genuinely felt very welcome and had one of my happiest afternoons in quite some time (and said as much to the person in the shop as I was leaving while I was buying some postcards and a copy of the guide book). If ever there was a model for how a museum visit should be, how it should go, it would be the Wordsworth Museum.

Having been pretty monogamous in my appreciation for British poets, I didn’t really have much of a clue about Wordsworth beyond Daffodils and not having read, as usual, the paragraph in Edward Morris’s Public Art Collections in North-West England beforehand (spoilers) hadn’t realised that Dove Cottage which is adjacent to the museum and conserved by the Wordsworth Trust had been place where he’d written that and all of the very best poems he was famous for. To stand outside there and look down the street, is to see the very landscape which inspired some of, as it turns out, greatest poetry in the English language. On the way to Windermere that day I did listen to a couple of preparatory In Our Times, about his and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude which gave me some idea of what to expect, just enough to be wowed as I stepped off the bus into the grounds.

The Trust’s art collection is split between three buildings, Dove Cottage, the museum and the archive building, The Jerwood Centre. After paying the entrance fee, the visitor is given a timed ticket for a tour of the cottage, limited to around fifteen people. Although there are some paintings in the dwelling, the tour really considers Dove Cottage as domestic residence and an example of housing in the period with the artwork, some real, some reproductions, utilised to illustrate the occupants of the period. The first painting you see is an anonymously created portrait of his dog Pepper, a gift to the family from Sir Walter Scott (the dog not the painting) who bred the animals and named them after herbs to save time. Dove Cottage is tiny though that must not have bothered Wordsworth, who lived there for just under ten years and received guests.

The most curious aspect is the Newspaper Room, a small space at the back on the top floor which it’s thought was primarily used as the children’s bedroom or later a guest room. It lacks a fireplace, so would have made it very cold in the winder but in her papers, Dorothy Wordsworth, William’s wife said that she covered the walls in newspaper to offer some insulation. Having deteriorated, these have still been replaced with pages from the same period and the effect is to walk into something akin to an art installation or a piece of set design from a Gilliam or Tarkovsky film. My fellow visitors and I immediately began reading the text, mainly from The Times, a mix of advertising and court reportage. Not that it is easy to read being old enough for the letters f and s to be interchangeable, something which I’ve never quite mastered instinctively even after all these years of looking at Shakespeare facsimiles.

From there it’s straight into the Museum. As Edward explains, this was opened in 1981 to help illustrate Wordsworth’s story, Dove Cottage itself having previously, as the Trust’s own website describes, previously been housed in a barn from 1936, with the books and manuscripts held from 1950 in a converted cottage nearby. The motive of the exhibition is to give some scope of both and also to illustrate the lives of both Wordsworth and Coleridge primarily during the period the former lived in Dove Cottage as well as necessarily before and after. In this it neatly strikes a balance between serving the uberfans and newbies and although I’m still firmly the latter, I came away with an intense understanding of Wordsworth’s importance within the history of English literature and that some really useful stuff was written after 1616. I have much to do.

Both of these sources are a bit short, and this is unusual for Edward, on the origins for much of this collection, but I’m going to guess that it’s a mix of bequests and later purchases. The landscapes are illustrative of the area and how it was around the time Wordsworth was writing, an oil of Ullswater by Joseph Wright of Derby, Elterwater by Francis Towne with as Edward observes its “schematic, block-like forms” and Peele Castle In A Storm by Sir George Beaumont. But the collection also includes examples of how later painters have interpreted the area, like Percy Frederick Horton’s post-impressionistic A Corner of Ambleside really captures how its possible for humanity’s houses and this landscape to co-exist to picturesque effect. I like the way he contrasts the smudgy brush strokes utilised to create the trees and fawner of nature with the clean lines of the man-made houses.

The rest of the exhibition features images of the key people in Wordsworth’s life, his friends and critics including, surprisingly life masks of him and Coleridge, white plaster faces which demonstrate the accuracy of the surrounding portraits which are mix of works from the Trust’s own collection and loans from the National Portrait Gallery. There’s Wordsworth himself proudly illustrated by Frederick Richard Pickersgill, clutching a pair of gloves and as a younger man, meaning fully clutching his forehead by Richard Carruthers. There’s James Henry Leigh Hunt, a usual arch critic who called Wordsworth the Prince of Bards and is depicted by Benjamin Robert Haydon as a rather heroic figure with bushy eyebrows and an open face. There’s James Northcote’s famous painting of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his prime just as he would have been when concocting Lyrical Verses.

At around two-thirty, I attended a tour of the third of the buildings on site, The Jerwood Centre, given by the curatorial assistant. The centre opened in 2005 to house Wordsworth’s papers and related materials and as the office site explains, contains 90% of Wordsworth’s known verse drafts as well as Dorothy’s notebooks. It’s a superb study space, the interior a contemporary office environment, the exterior the same dry-stone walling as the rest of the site, the only concession being its cylindrical shape. If you do happen upon the Wordsworth Museum, it’s well worth taking time for this since it’s also the place where the A-List artworks are kept and while in the inner area of the archive, one of the volunteers surprised us by turning one of the otherwise hidden paintings to reveal a Turner recently purchased by the trust, his Ullswater, Cumberland (which is pictured on the Art Fund’s website).

After the museum I walked out into the landscape that inspired Wordsworth, and just like the view from Brantwood it’s so expressively beautiful photography can’t really capture it (not that I didn’t try) (I've repaired my camera). I may well have said to a pedestrian as they were passing me gaping at the horizon, “Isn’t this gorgeous?” and they may have said, “Yes, aren’t we lucky.” That may have happened. I may also have phoned someone to babble down the receiver at them about all of this, gesticulating wildly before realising and then marvelling at the fact I was standing in the middle of that once wilderness and able to get a perfect mobile phone signal. I may have done that too. I may also have thought of that scene in the film Contact when Jodie Foster’s character looks into infinity and says, “They should have sent a poet…” before reminding myself that thank goodness on this occasion, “they” did.

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