Fair seed-time

The best parlour at Wordsworth House, Cockermouth. ©National Trust Images/David Levenson

‘Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up

Foster’d alike by beauty and by fear;

Much favour’d in my birthplace…’

Costumed interpreter dressed as Ann Wordsworth at Wordsworth House. ©National Trust Images/David Levenson

The poet William Wordsworth, who wrote these lines (from The Prelude, 1805), was born in a fairly substantial house in Cockermouth, in what is now Cumbria, in 1770.

The back office at Wordsworth House, where John Wordsworth would have worked in his role as agent to the Lowther estate. ©National Trust Images/David Levenson

William was the second child of John and Ann Wordsworth. John was the agent for Sir James Lowther’s Cumberland estates. The house was owned by the estate and was ‘tied’ to the agent’s position. For a number of years it must have been filled with the sounds of the growing brood of Wordsworth children, five in all.

Costumed interpreters dressed as servants in the kitchen at Wordsworth House. ©National Trust Images/David Levenson

Tragedy struck in 1778 when Ann Wordsworth died, and John died five years later, with the children having to be sent into the care of relatives elsewhere. But the period in Cockermouth seems to have been a particularly formative experience for William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, as it imbued them with a sense of the beauty of the Cumbrian landscape.

The dining room at Wordsworth House. ©National Trust Images/David Levenson

The house was given to the National Trust by the Wordsworth Memorial Fund in 1938. By that time there had been a number of subsequent owners, and no furniture or other objects remained from the Wordsworths’ time. In 2004 the National Trust instigated a restoration project to bring the house’s appearance back to what it may have looked like in the 1760s and 1770s.

10 Responses to “Fair seed-time”

  1. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    I am impressed by the interpretive presentation. I have tired of curators who will not allow anything to be placed on a table, much less introducting other elements. It is lovely as well as educational.

  2. style court Says:

    I agree with John (Devoted Classicist).

    Also, I’m captivated by the green lining of the bed curtains. While I realize the fabrics and paint colors are just approximations of what might have been there during Wordsworth’s day the green is very Splendor in the Grass! And the hanging herb bouquets are a wonderful touch too.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    John, yes the restoration and refurbishment of Wordsworth House was intended not just to recreate the period but also to make the house lively and engaging. Some of the rooms have been consciously designated as ‘please do touch’ spaces.

    Courtney, trust you to have a cinematic reference at the ready 🙂

    Curator Richard Dean did a fantastic job in researching and sourcing period details. For instance, when I visited a while ago Richard mentioned that they had consciously framed the prints without mounts (as you can see in the image of Ann Wordworth’s bedroom), because that was how it was done in the 1760s-70s.

  4. Susan Holloway Scott Says:

    Beautiful restoration and interpretation. The research and care is evident in every last piece.
    But why, why permit the interpreters to keep their modern hair styles and make-up? And why isn’t ‘Ann Wordsworth’ wearing boned stays beneath her silk gown? You can be sure the real lady wouldn’t have received guests without them – and the gown would fit much better with 18th c. undergarments.
    I’m being picky, I know, but it’s a shame that the accuracy of the 18th c. dress doesn’t match that of the interiors.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Susan, that is a good point, and it probably means we need more specialist historical costume advice in the mix when creating costumes for interpreters to use – not just to get it as accurate as possible, but also because the details of historical costume are just as interesting as, for instance, the details of historical interior decoration. We do have some historical costume specialists, particularly at Killerton in Devon and in our textile conservation workshop based at Blickling Hall in Norfolk, but perhaps we need more of them …

    I totally appreciate your being picky – tough love! 🙂

  6. style court Says:

    Emile — I forgot about the old movie 🙂 I was thinking of the imagery in his poetry — Ode, Intimations of Immortality — which is funny because I’m usually referencing films.

    Interesting about the mounts. The house is beautiful — even in pictures it feels as if a fresh breeze might be blowing through a window. Less typical of many historic houses open to the public, as John said.

  7. deana Says:

    I love all the small details of life in a house. I love it when you do closeups.

    I also had to laugh about the mat-less prints. I did some prints without mats once on a set and the DP had kittens. He told me it was wrong wrong wrong! He said he wouldn’t shoot in that direction because he was so offended. You have made me terribly happy.

  8. HJ Says:

    Lovely restoration! Minor editing point: in the sentence “Tragedy struck in 1778 when Ann Wordsworth died, and William died five years later, with the children having to be sent into the care of relatives elsewhere” surely it’s JOHN who died, not William? I wouldn’t mention it except that this post will be used a reference for years to come! (Feel free to delete this comment if you do amend the post.)

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, I now see what you were referring to:

    Then sing, ye birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
    And let the young lambs bound
    As to the tabor’s sound!
    We in thought will join your throng,
    Ye that pipe and ye that play,
    Ye that through your hearts to-day
    Feel the gladness of the May!
    What though the radiance which was once so bright
    Be now for ever taken from my sight,
    Though nothing can bring back the hour
    Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
    We will grieve not, rather find
    Strength in what remains behind;
    In the primal sympathy
    Which having been must ever be;
    In the soothing thoughts that spring
    Out of human suffering;
    In the faith that looks through death,
    In years that bring the philosophic mind.

    (Lines 173-191 of Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’)

    Deana, I am so pleased you have been vindicated. Next time a director of photography challenges your historical designs, tell him or her to call Richard Dean 🙂

    HJ, thank you very much for alerting me to my John/William confusion – I have corrected it. I am not sure about this being read in years to come, but I do want to get it right 🙂

  10. style court Says:

    Emile — that’s it 🙂

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