Under suspicion: some writers and artists in the English countryside

Alfoxton House

The English countryside was once a refuge for writers and artists of slender means. The life was peaceful, the air was fresh, and the rents were cheap. But like exotic plants transplanted to alien soil, they brought their own peculiarities to their new habitat. And they could arouse suspicion and sometimes loathing in the natives. They could be troublesome, eccentric and disconcerting. What on earth did they do all day and how did they make a living? That some of them might be subversives or spies seemed an obvious explanation. Times of war or preparation for war are paranoid times, and sometimes, to paraphrase, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t really out to undermine you (William S Burroughs took this notion even further: ‘Paranoia is just having the right information.’). Two periods when some writers and artists fell under particular suspicion while abroad in the countryside were the years between the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and during the Great War.

William Blake, a Londoner to his core, got into trouble more than once when he left the city. In September 1780, he went on a sketching tour of the River Medway in Kent with his friends Thomas Stothard and a Mr Ogleby. On one of their days out the trio stopped on a picturesque stretch of the river close to the military fort of Upnor Castle and opposite the Royal Navy stronghold of Chatham Docks. They soon attracted the attention of the soldiers guarding the facilities. In a biography of Stothard, his daughter-in-law recalled:

Whilst the trio were one day engaged with the pencil on shore, . . . some soldiers . . . very unceremoniously made them prisoners, under the suspicion of their being spies for the French government; as this country was then at war with France. . . . There were they detained, with a sentinel placed over them, until intelligence could be received from certain members of the Royal Academy, to whom they appealed to certify they were really peaceable subjects of his Majesty King George, and not spies for France.

It’s not clear just how long it took for those Academicians to vouch for the unworldly trio but it can’t have happened quickly in those pre-telegraph days. In the meantime, Stothard used the idle time to sketch his friends in their idyllic detention.

Medway detention - Stothard

Stothard and his friends held prisoners on suspicion of being French spies during a boating excursion on the Medway; thicket in centre with tent construction emerging from it, to r masts of sailing vessels visible. c.1780-85 Pen and brown ink © The Trustees of the British Museum

Blake’s second brush with the military was far more fraught and produced much unhappier consequences, though its initial circumstances verged on the absurd. In 1800 Blake and his wife Catherine had moved to a cottage in the village of Felpham in Sussex at the invitation of Thomas Hayley, who also promised to commission some engravings from Blake. The three-year stay in Sussex was not a happy one for Blake and by 1803 his early optimism and enchantment (‘Heaven opens here on all sides her Golden Gate; her windows are not obscured by vapours.’) had dissipated, his relationship with Hayley had soured, and he and Catherine were intent on moving back to London.

One day in August 1803 Blake went out into the cottage garden and found a soldier of the 1st regiment of dragoons there, a man called John Scolfield. Blake didn’t know that he had been invited in by the gardener and told him to leave. Scolfield refused, the two men argued heatedly, and then Blake grabbed him and pushed him out into the road. The confrontation was witnessed by some of the villagers and by Scolfield’s fellow dragoon, John Cock. Scolfield and Cock then adjourned to the Fox inn, where no doubt Scolfield nursed his grievance against Blake over ale. Three days later Scolfield stood before the Chichester justice of the peace and accused Blake of pro-French seditious expressions and damning the king of England.

Blake denied the charges but was ordered to appear before the court at Chichester, where he was indicted for sedition against king and country and assault against Scolfield, both extremely serious charges at the time. Though Blake pleaded not guilty, given his anti-monarchical views it’s not inconceivable that an altercation with a soldier might have led to him to hurl some unwise insults. This was a time too when the southern coast of England, of which Sussex was a large slice, was on constant alert for an expected French invasion. (It’s worth noting that Blake yielded to no-one in his own paranoia. He wondered if Hayley, despite funding his defence, was actually involved in the conspiracy against him.) The Blakes had returned to London and Blake went to Chichester for the trial in January 1804. Thanks to the efforts of his barrister and the favourable testimony of witnesses he was acquitted of all the charges. So far as I know he never left London again.

Felpham cottage - Blake

William Blake’s cottage in ‘sweet Felpham’, from his illustrations in Milton: A Poem.

When William and Dorothy Wordsworth decided to live in the Quantock Hills of Somerset in July 1797, they settled on something grander than Blake’s cottage near the sea. They leased a mansion with nine bedrooms and three parlours in the village of Alfoxden (the house was secured at a reasonable rent with the help of Thomas Poole, a local farmer of wealth and radical views – see picture at the top of this post). Visitors to the Wordsworths included literary friends  such as William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb and of course Samuel Taylor Coleridge, himself living nearby in Nether Stowey. At this time Coleridge composed his poem ‘This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison’, in which he is forced to stay at home while the Wordsworths and Lamb go off for a walk in the Quantocks (his incapacity was due to his wife Sara having spilt a pan of scalding milk on his foot). The first verse runs:

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge;—that branchless ash,
Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann’d by the water-fall! and there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone.

In March of that year, a 1400 strong French force, including members of the Society of United Irishmen, had attempted an invasion at Fishguard in Wales. They were swiftly forced to surrender but news of the event increased the sense of impending war in England. It should be no surprise that the comings and going of radical literary types in Alfoxden made the villagers uneasy. Suspicions were heightened when the Wordsworths hosted John Thelwall, a prominent radical who had recently been tried and narrowly acquitted of treason in London. In his journal Coleridge recorded a conversation with Thelwall when they were out one sunny afternoon:

We were once sitting in a beautiful recess in the Quantocks when I said to him, “Citizen John, this is a fine place to talk treason in” – “Nay Citizen Samuel,” cried he, “it is rather a place to make a man forget that there is any necessity for treason”.

James Walsh, a government agent, was sent down to Somerset to investigate the Worsdworths’ circle. In his report he stated that the group were not French spies but a ‘a sett of violent Democrats’ already known to the authorities. Though Poole told the owner of the Wordsworth’s house that he would vouch for them this support was undermined by the fact that Poole too was mentioned in Walsh’s report. The lease to the house was not renewed and the Wordsworths and the Coleridges left Somerset to go on a tour of Germany.

In July 1914 the artist-architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, the artist-designer Margaret Macdonald, were on holiday in Walberswick in Suffolk when war broke out. They decided to stay put in Sussex rather than return to their native Glasgow. East Anglia had the coast within easiest reach of the German navy and fear of invasion was rife. Mackintosh had taken to walking the shoreline on his own, often at dusk, sketching as he went. These activities. along with his thick Glaswegian accent (conceivably as incomprehensible to the Suffolk natives as a German one) were sufficient to get him reported to the military authorities. Mackintosh was arrested and a search of his belongings uncovered some letters from Germany, albeit old ones (Macintosh had many friends on the Continent and his reputation was much higher there than in Britain). Mackintosh was told to leave the area, and May 1915 he and Margaret decamped to London, where it was safe to sketch, even in wartime.


Venetian Palace, Blackshore on the Blyth (1914) – Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Blackshore is close to Walberswick, where Mackintosh was staying.

DH Lawrence and his wife Frieda moved from London to Zennor in Cornwall in February 1916, after the disastrous reception of his novel, The Rainbow, which was panned by the critics and then banned for obscenity. Lawrence had had it with England and the move to Cornwall was a temporary one until he and Frieda could arrange a move to the United States. Lawrence was delighted with the Cornish landscape but he didn’t care for the locals. In a letter he described them as ‘like insects gone cold, living only for money, for dirt. They are foul in this. They ought all to die. Yet in the next line he admits …Not that I’ve seen much of them – I’ve been laid up in bed. But going out, in the motor and so on, one sees them and feels them and knows what they are like.’ Lawrence also made little effort to hide his contempt for patriotism or his anti-war views from his Cornish neighbours. Little wonder that, with a German wife too, he attracted hostility and suspicion.

Accusations of signalling to German submarines in the English Channel, using the lights of their cottage and the clothes on their washing line, were made against the Lawrences. While a police raid on the cottage found no evidence of spying activities, the combination of Lawrence’s anti-war stance and Frieda’s status as an enemy alien — and a cousin of the Red Baron to boot — meant that the couple were ordered to leave Cornwall in October 1917. Unable to get the necessary visas to travel to the United sates, the Lawrences knocked around in England for another eighteen months or so, before they left for good in the summer of 1919.

Tower House Zennor

Tower House in Zennor, the cottage rented by the Lawrences. © Lillicrap Chilcott/BNPS

It’s easy, with (in EP Thompson’s phrase) the enormous condescension of posterity, to mock the paranoia and suspicion that provoked these unhappy encounters. And yet the threats were real. France was planning an invasion, there were people of radical views who wished to import the revolution, and there were German spies abroad in England during the Great War. Free societies are constantly rebalancing liberty and security, never more so than in our own age. Blake and Lawrence in particular were unashamed members of the awkward squad, and many artists then and now embrace their outsider status. Little wonder that the addition of artists and writers to settled communities occasionally made a combustible mixture.