Archive Spotlight: Robert Southey at Keswick Museum

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A new post today for the ‘Archive Spotlight’ series. Many archives are of course closed in these strange and difficult times. We hope that this illustrated post will be one way of continuing to celebrate the archive – albeit remotely – in these circumstances, thereby reminding us of the treasures held in Romanticism collections. If you’d like to contribute future post, please get in touch.

The post below explores Keswick Museum’s unique collections by and connected to Robert Southey (1774-1843).

About the authors: Dr Charlotte May is a Cultural Engagement Fellow at the University of Nottingham, and Nicola Lawson is the Curator for the Museum’s extensive collections. 

View the other posts in the ‘Archive Spotlight’ series here.

Encountering Southey – Charlotte May

From February 2020 I have been working with Keswick Museum, Ian Packer and Lynda Pratt to deliver the AHRC-funded project ‘Robert Southey’s Keswick: Enhancing Understanding of the Literary Culture of the Northern Lake District’.  The project aims to effect a step-change in Keswick Museum’s presentation of the significance of Southey and his circle to a range of stakeholders by developing new educational, training and other resources.  It draws on The Collected Letters of Robert Southey, which is publishing for the first time all of Southey’s surviving correspondence, including hundreds of manuscript letters held by Keswick Museum.     

Working with archival materials is a privilege, and an experience that is truly unique. You learn about a person’s habits and behaviours, from their handwriting to their health. In Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, Oliver De Hamel writes about ‘the experience of encounter’ when one handles historic manuscripts. Indeed, I have certainly encountered Southey at Keswick Museum, and working with the collection there has been a true joy.

Robert Southey (1774-1843) was a prolific and controversial poet, biographer, historian, and essayist. He lived at Greta Hall, Keswick for forty years and during this time used his extensive correspondence to record changes in local, national and international life. About six hundred of Southey’s letters are in the Museum’s collections, along with manuscripts of major works such as Madoc, notebooks that reveal the reading and research that underpinned his writings, personal effects and portraits. The latter include one commissioned by Southey’s friend William Taylor of Norwich and painted by John Opie in 1806, that is currently the focal point of the Museum’s exhibition.

Robert Southey by John Opie, 1806

A second portrait shows Southey aged two.  In 1796 it was the prompt for verses in which Southey reflected on his younger self and on his decision to embark on a poetic career:  

‘And I was once like this! that glowing cheek
Was mine, those pleasure-sparkling eyes, that brow
Smooth as the level lake, when not a breeze
Dies o’er the sleeping surface!’

You can listen to the full poem here.

Miniature of Robert Southey, aged 2

To encounter Southey in Keswick is to take up an imaginative residence in Greta Hall, and to be among his extended family and his many friends and acquaintances. Indeed the Museum’s collections contain important evidence of Southey’s love for family and home, including the ‘Memoir of the Cats of Greta Hall’, written for Edith May Southey and later published in The Doctor. One of the most poignant items is the ‘Greek Grammar in Rhyme’ that Southey wrote for his son Herbert.  The death of the latter, aged nine, in April 1816 was a blow from which Southey and his wife Edith never fully recovered.  

Greek Grammar in Rhyme, written by Robert Southey for his son Herbert

After looking at this beautiful – and fragile – item, it was incredible to hear Herbert’s own voice in a letter he sent to a close family friend, Mary Barker.  The same letter contains a postscript by Herbert’s aunt Sara Coleridge and thus offers a reminder of the close familial, as well as professional, ties that connected and helped shape the lives and works of Southey and, indeed, other members of the ‘Lake School’.

Letter to Miss Barker from Herbert Southey, 3 November [1815]

The ‘Robert Southey’s Keswick’ project has contributed to the Museum’s new Southey exhibition and also produced a number of related outputs.  These include: training resources for the Museum’s guides and volunteers, a new guidebook on Robert Southey and Keswick, a learning box for schools, a walking tour, and online resources, including highlights from the Museum’s Southey collection that are not currently on display. By making this important collection better known and more accessible, the project also hopes to contribute to the Museum’s longer-term sustainability at a time when it, like other regional museums and archives, faces unprecedented challenges.

Our collections and their future – Nicola Lawson

Keswick Museum’s Southey collection is of huge historical value, and it is important that we care for it properly. The aim is that, as we are lucky enough to be able to see these objects 200 years after Southey lived, we preserve them so they last another 200 years and more.

This care involves two strands: preventative and remedial conservation. Preventative conservation is something we do every day at the Museum, and involves practices which slow down the deterioration of objects. For example, we make sure that paper objects, like Southey’s letters and notebooks, aren’t exposed to too much light. If you’ve ever had a picture facing a window, you know how quickly light can fade objects.

We also have to control the temperature and relative humidity of the spaces where the objects are stored and displayed. If the relative humidity in a room gets too high, there is moisture in the air and objects can become mouldy. If the relative humidity is too low, they can dry out and become brittle. It’s a delicate balancing act.

Other things we do to prevent damage and decay include regularly checking for pests, and preventing them as much as we can, and handling objects appropriately. This means always holding them by the base, and never by a handle, and usually wearing gloves. We wear gloves because hands naturally secrete oils which, over time, can be damaging to objects. Museum professionals used to wear cotton gloves, which are the type you’ll see most often on TV, but now we tend to use nitrile gloves. These give you a better grip on the object. For paper, we don’t wear gloves, as you can potentially do more damage by wearing them: if you can’t feel the paper properly, you might accidentally tear it. So we handle paper with clean, dry hands.

Keswick Museum curator Nicola Lawson with some of the Southey collection, including his death mask and his dress shoes.

Remedial conservation is different. This is restoring a historic object, and is only ever done by a qualified conservator. Currently, the ‘Greek Grammar in Rhyme’ booklet Southey wrote for Herbert has some pages which are coming loose from the binding. The Museum is trying to raise the money to have to have this restored by a conservator.

One of the ways the Museum is raising money is through its Adopt an Object scheme. Adopters can choose from a range of local objects to sponsor for a year, many of which are related to Southey and the Romantics. Adopt an Object packages are sold in the Museum shop, and orders can also be taken over the phone. All proceeds support the Museum mission to care for Keswick’s wonderful heritage. When you adopt an object you will receive a card featuring images of the Museum’s collections, a certificate featuring the name of the adopter and a picture of the chosen object, and a ticket to visit the Museum which is valid for 12 months.

The Romantic period objects up for adoption are:

  • John Opie’s portrait of Robert Southey – £150
  • Robert Southey’s notebook – £100
  • A lock of William Wordsworth’s hair – £40
  • Robert Southey’s death mask – £35
  • A poem to Robert Southey from his cats – £15

Keswick Museum is very proud to care for this large collection relating to Southey’s life and works, and to make it available for research in collaboration with the University of Nottingham.

To adopt an object and support the Museum to preserve its collections for future generations to enjoy, please visit our website, call Keswick Museum on 017687 73263, or visit the Museum at Station Street, Keswick.

If the Museum is closed due to a lockdown, please either order online, or call 017687 73263 and leave a message with your name, contact details, and request, and a member of staff will get back to you.