Hayley, Cowper and Smith – Eartham, Slindon and Bignor

There are a number of other important writers who lived bordering the Slindon Estate.TurnerSmith Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) was a Sussex writer whose works have been credited with influencing Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. She revived the Sonnet form which was later used by Keats and Wordsworth. Bignor Park was her childhood home and remained a focal point for her poems. Professor Judith Hawley noted that not only did Smith grow up on the South Downs, but that she read up about them and wished to educate her readers about the natural and moral significance of the landscape. Writing in The Guardian (2004) Smith’s The Emigrants (1793) is noted as paralleling the fate of those driven out of France by the revolution with the sufferings of victims of the British state machinery. Book II opens on the Downs, which afforded to the South a view of the Sea; to the North of the Weald of Sussex  – a similar location to Belloc’s favourite, perhaps:

So many years have passed,
Since, on my native hills, I learned to gaze
On these delightful landscapes; and those years
Have taught me so much sorrow, that my soul
Feels not the joy reviving Nature brings;
But, in dark retrospect, dejected dwells
On human follies, and on human woes.

Her Sonnet XXXI was written in ‘Farm Wood, South Downs’ in May 1784; in her Sonnet V. To the South Downs:

Ah, hills belov’d! where once, an happy child,
Your beechen shades, “your turf, your flowers among,”
I wove your blue-bells into garlands wild,
And woke your echoes with my artless song.
Ah, hills belov’d! your turf, your flowers remain;

But can they peace to this sad breast restore,
For one poor moment soothe the sense of pain,
And teach a breaking heart to throb no more?
And you, Aruna! in the vale below


William Cowper by George Romney (1792) Romney had been considerably in debt, much due to his artistic but dissolute brother Peter. Fortunately, he was offered commissions by the Duke of Richmond and his circle, which helped turn the tide. He met Hayley in 1776, made a lasting friendship and painted many portraits for him.

The Emigrants was dedicated to the poet William Cowper, and we find that it draws Smith into a wider circle. Writer William Hayley’s private means enabled him to live close to Slindon on his patrimonial estate at Eartham, Sussex, (now Great Ballard School), commissioning work from the likes of painter George Romney and sculptor John Flaxman.

Thou first and simplest of the arts, that rose
to cheer the world, and lighten human woes!

An Essay on Sculpture, William Hayley (1800); full text available here

Flaxman introduced the artist William Blake to Hayley, and indeed after Hayley moved in 1800 to his marine hermitage at Felpham, Blake settled near him for three years to engrave the illustrations for the Life of Cowper, Hayley’s best known work. Blake didn’t stay long, as he was prosecuted for high treason after removing a drunk soldier from his garden, whose testimony put him on trial in Chichester. Blake moved back to London after Hayley helped secure his acquittal.

Poet William Cowper was a good friend of Hayley and visited Eartham. His diary accounts ‘Except some terrors I felt passing over Sussex hills at moonlight, little to complain of’. Perhaps he passed along Stane Street and our Northwood? Professor Judith Hawley mentioned that Cowper and Smith were both guests of William Hayley in 1792. Indeed both were sketched by Romney then.


more on Bignor Park and Smith here; Bignor Park is open through the National Gardens Scheme and for other events

There is a brief account of the Cowper/Smith Eartham visit in a biography of Charlotte Smith by Loraine Fletcher (St Martin’s Press, 1998)

Judith Hawley’s 2004 Guardian review of Charlotte Smith’s Selected Poems (Carcanet/Fyfield) here

http://thebigblakeproject.org.uk – a project to save Blake’s cottage in Felpham

One thought on “Hayley, Cowper and Smith – Eartham, Slindon and Bignor

  1. The writers connection is good. Eleanor Farjeon (who wrote the poem that we know as the hymn ‘Morning Has Broken’) lived in Houghton and used to walk over to East Dean to meet DH Lawrence for lunch, when he was staying with Peggy Guggenheim over near Petersfield. Can’t believe someone like that DIDN’T walk to Slindon and explore the Downs around Northwood. The imagery of her poem seems very apt – blackbirds, dawn and all that.


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