July 24, 2024

Chapter 7 – ending this chapter with “Eight in the Octagon”

In the following are eight paintings which were exhibited in Cambridge at the “Eight in the Octagon” exhibition detailing each a century over a period of 800 years from 1209 until 2009. Each painting deals with a century of the history of the University of Cambridge.

I have the eight paintings first as a tiled matrix and then listed below individually with the corresponding descriptive texts.

“Eight in the Octagon”

1209 – 1309, oil on panel 30 x 24 inches, private collection


The manuscript in the foreground of this painting, which represents a scholar’s desk from the period, is a compilation of early scholastic texts written and illustrated in England c.1209 (MS 83, Parker Library, Corpus Christi College). The page shown is part of the Compendium historiae in genealogia Christi by Peter of Poitiers. Peter was Chancellor of the University of Paris at the beginning of the thirteenth century and this manuscript is one example of learning being disseminated from the intellectual centre of Paris to England around the time that the university was being founded. The Compendium is a Latin text based on biblical learning which illustrates the genealogy of Christ. The left-hand page (f. 2v) shows Noah and the right-hand page (f. 3r) has medallions showing Terah, Abraham and Isaac.

The leaning book to the right of the Compendium shows the binding of manuscript B.13 at The Library, St. John’s. The manuscript was written in the late 11th century at Bury St Edmunds and contains the Latin text of Gregory the Great’s homilies on Ezechiel. The binding appears to be original ie. late 11th century. It consists of white skin over wooden boards and would originally have had a clasp to keep the volume shut. A note on the first page by the prior of Bury St Edmunds Abbey, Henry Kirkestede, records that this book was used in the refectory i.e. for reading aloud to the monks at meal times.

The books page-end on behind the Compendium are theological works including commentaries on Lombard’s Sentences, works of biblical history and sermons, and are also from the Parker Library at Corpus. The wooden table was inspired by a small low table seen in Emmanuel library, to which was added a carving of the Peterhouse coat-of-arms (the oldest college in Cambridge, founded in 1284).

1309 – 1409, oil on panel 30 x 24 inches, owned by Clare College


The royal theme of this painting was inspired by the long tradition of royal patronage throughout the University’s history.

The large open manuscript on the bookstand is an illustrated Apocalypse written in the 1330s (MS 20, Parker Library, Corpus Christi College). It is written in Latin and Anglo-Norman and was made for a wealthy nobleman, Sir Henry de Cobham. It subsequently passed to Juliana de Leybourne, Countess of Huntingdon (d. 1367) who bequeathed it to St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. From there it passed into the collection of Archbishop Matthew Parker (d. 1575) who left it to Corpus Christi College in his will.

The Apocalypse or Book of Revelation was a popular subject for contemplation in the later middle ages. The left-hand page (f. 18v) illustrates Revelations 8:13, St John watches as an eagle cries ‘Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth’. The right-hand page (f. 19r) illustrates Revelations 9:1-3: St John watches as an angel blows the fifth trumpet, the pit of hell opens and locusts stream out.

The psalter in the foreground (MS 76, Sidney Sussex) was made by artists of the Milemete Group, most probably in Oxford, c. 1330, for a patron in the diocese of Exeter. The small books supporting the psalter contain treatises on astronomy and mathematics, chronicles and historical texts (Parker Library, Corpus Christi).

To the right of the Sidney psalter, we find an English planispheric astrolabe from the 14th century (Wh.1264, Whipple Museum). The astrolabe is an astronomical instrument used to observe and calculate the position of celestial bodies. The instrument works on a principle called stereographic projection. This allows the 3-dimensional celestial sphere representing the heavens to be drawn on a flat disc marked with a grid of curved lines. The movements of the sun and stars can be traced against this grid, once their positions have been determined. Most astrolabes are equipped with sights to make the necessary observations, enabling the user to find the time of day or night. These sights can also be used to find the heights of buildings, trees and hills. A further function of the astrolabe was to model the appearance of the heavens for times past and future, making it useful in astrology.

The red and gold tapestry behind the Book of the Apocalypse is a detail of the altar frontal in Queens’ Chapel, and is not of the period, but was chosen as tapestries were often used as wall hangings in this period. The altar frontal was originally an Arts and Crafts design by Bodley, made by Watts and Co., but was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1970. The present day Frontal was purchased in the early 1980s from Watts and Co, of the same, or similar, material and design to the original.

The stained glass in the background is from the Cambridge Greyfriars, dating from the 1330s and 1340s and the second half of the 14th century, and was discovered in fragments during excavations in Cloister Court, Sidney Sussex in 1958. The coats-of-arms of the colleges founded in this period have been inserted into the pattern of the stained glass, namely Clare (1326), Pembroke (1347), Gonville & Caius (1348), Trinity Hall (1350) and Corpus Christi (1352).

1409 – 1509, oil on panel 30 x 24 inches, private collection

1409 – 1509

This composition grew from a medical theme, inspired by the royal edict issued in 1421 limiting the licence to practise physic to graduates of Oxford and Cambridge.

The large book at the back is an Ortus Sanitatis, a medieval compendium of medical texts including Galen¹.

The open volume just below the medieval compendium is the Liber Cosmographiae by John Foxton produced in the early fifteenth century. The figure decorated with zodiac signs shows the seasons for bleeding on various parts of the body. This book rests against an example of English binding of the late 15th century—the beasts on the cover are a common motif.

In front of the Liber Cosmographiae we find a Ptolemaic armillary sphere, in brass, 15th or 16th century (Wh.0336 , Whipple Museum). Little is known for sure about this specific armillary sphere, although one conjecture is that it was used by a university lecturer in the 15th or 16th century to aid in the teaching of elementary astronomy. It shows the Ptolemaic system of the universe, with the Earth at the centre, and the celestial sphere represented by the eleven brass rings fixed to the central axis.

Lower left we find Johannes Marchesinus (fl. ca. 1300) Mammotrectus super Bibliam (Venice, 1479), a compendium of Bible commentary and church year sermons, and Joannes Balbus (d. 1298), Catholicon (Venice, 1495), a medieval Latin dictionary by an Italian Dominican. Neither has Cambridge connections but are the type of volume that could be found in any learned library of the time, and are in contemporary English bindings.

The open volume shows the coats-of-arms of the colleges founded in this period, namely Magdalene (1428)², King’s (1441), Queens’ (1448), St. Catharine’s (1473), Jesus (1496) and Christ’s (1505).

In the foreground, resting on a velvet cushion, we find Lady Margaret Beaufort’s Book of Hours (French, c. 1440-5, The Library, St. John’s), open, appropriately, at an image of St. John, and showing the opening of the text of St John’s Gospel in Latin (In principio erat verbum/In the beginning was the word etc.). The initial I shows St. John writing his gospel, with his emblem, an eagle, by his side. A little black devil behind him is trying to snatch away John’s pen case and ink pot. On the left-hand page the saints’ days are listed, written in French: St Thomas the apostle (21 Dec.), Christmas Day, St Stephanus (26 Dec.), St John the evangelist (27 Dec.), Holy innocents (28 Dec.), St Thomas archbishop of Canterbury (29 Dec.), St Silvester (31 Dec.).

Underneath the list is Lady Margaret’s English inscription which gives to the book its principal interest:

my good lady Shyrley pray forme that gevythe yow thys bookey hertely pray yow Margaretmodyr to the kynge

Lady Margaret gave the book as a gift to Anne Shirley, wife to Richard Shirley, bailiff of Lady Margaret’s Manor at Ware.

The composition rests on a chest dating from the 14th or 15th century which was probably Clare College’s “oldest Library”, and now sits outside the Fellows’ Combination Room.

¹ Eagle-eyed observers will note that this is a very slightly later edition (c. 1511), due to artist’s lack of academic rigour during photo shoot, but content is correct for the period.

² Reference was made to Peter Pagnamenta ed., The University of Cambridge: An 800th Anniversary, Cambridge 2008 for this date, as opposed to the 1542 foundation date given in other publications.

1509 – 1609, oil on panel 30 x 24 inches

1509 – 1609

This composition, with a botanical theme inspired by Newton’s apple and John Ray’s classification of plants, rests upon two rows of drawers from a pharmaceutical cabinet (1704) belonging to Giovanni Francesco Vigani of Verona, now situated in the Master’s Lodge at Queens’. The cabinet contains over 700 samples of seeds, resins, fossils, barks, pigments, metals, roots, oils, balsams and salts. Vigani began to teach the new science of Chemistry in Cambridge in 1683, and in 1702 he was elected to the first Chair of Chemistry.

Upon the drawers we find Newton’s notebook, lock of hair and his walking stick (Wren Library, Trinity). The lock of hair probably stems from a larger gathering that passed into the hands of the Earls of Portsmouth through Newton’s niece. Newton originally used the notebook as a Latin exercise book when he was at school in Grantham, but later used it to record his expenses while a Trinity undergraduate [R.4.48c]. The walking stick was believed to have belonged to Newton, and remained in his family until it was given to G. W. Lydekker, who gave it in turn to Trinity in 1879.

The two small leaning books behind Newton’s notebook are John Ray’s Catalogus plantarum circa Cantabrigium nascentium, 1660 (Wren Library, Trinity College), which list 558 species of plant and crops growing in the region,. Ray’s great work was the Historia Plantarum describing 6100 species, which was published in two volumes in 1686-88.

To the left we find a Shakespeare First Folio, entitled “Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies” published in 1623 in London by Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blunt. This volume forms part of the Capell collection (Capell A3, Wren Library, Trinity).

Above is an illustration taken from Harvey’s Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (Anatomical Essays on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals) (1628). The experiment depicted illustrated the function of the valves in veins and arteries as only allowing blood to flow in one direction. Previous to Harvey’s explanation of the heart’s function as a pump, it was generally accepted that blood flowed freely around the body, moved along by a squeezing action of the veins and arteries.

To the right we find a carved wooden box containing an encrusted skull, c. 3,600 years old, given to Sidney Sussex College by Captain Stevens of Rotherhithe in 1627. It is of importance in the history of palaeontology, being the first fossilised human skull to reach an English collection.

Top centre we have the engraved title page of the first edition of the Authorised Version of the Bible, commonly known as the King James Bible (title page engraved by Cornelis Bol, printed in London by Robert Barker, 1611).

To the right we find the Emmanuel College admission register 1584-1713. The left-hand page bears the signature of John Harvard, who was admitted to Emmanuel on 19 December 1627, and went on to found Harvard University.

Below the register is Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, printed at London in 1687. This particular volume is from Newton’s own library and includes his own annotations (NQ.16.200, Wren Library, Trinity).

Below this is a 6-draw refracting telescope, by John Yarwell, late 17th century (Wh.0876, Whipple Museum). The refracting telescope uses a lens to focus the observed image. Its exact origin is disputed, but it first appeared among Dutch spectacle makers at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

The third book underneath the telescope is one volume of A new system, or, an analysis of ancient mythology by Jacob Bryant, published from 1774 to 1776 (Y.5.1-3, Wren Library, Trinity).

1709 – 1809, oil on panel 30 x 24 inches, donated to Downing College by Downing alumnus

1709 – 1809

In the foreground of this Neo-Classical composition we have a section by William Wilkins of the West End of Downing College Chapel, which was, however, never built and there was no purpose-built chapel until 1953. His architectural designs for Downing College, which had been founded in 1800, date from 1806-1811.

To the left we have a letter written by William Wilberforce in 1792 to Bryan Edwards, a planter and politician. Wilberforce sends Edwards reports of Parliamentary debates on the slave trade and hopes that he will come round to supporting the abolition of the slave trade.

Below the letter is the teacup from William Wordsworth’s breakfast set. The cup was given to Wordsworth by Sir George Howland Beaumont, the art patron and painter. Wordsworth used it from 1816 until his death in 1850.

The teacup is sitting on a copy of volume three of Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu’s Oeuvres, printed in Amsterdam and Leipzig in 1758. The volume was given to St. John’s by Hugh Gatty in 1945.

Above this small grouping is a copy of John Flamsteed’s Historiae coelestis libri duo (London, 1712) – this was the first edition, printed without Flamsteed’s consent, of what was to become the Historia coelestis Britannica.

Above is a Culpeper-type compound microscope, by John Cuff, England, c. 1745 (Wh.1787, Whipple Museum). Culpeper type microscopes are compound microscopes. The compound microscope was developed during the 17th Century and was closely related to the refracting telescope. Its popularity increased after the publication in 1665 of Robert Hooke’s (1635-1703) Micrographia, containing detailed pictures, never before seen, of insects magnified using a compound microscope.

The horizontal book below the microscope is William Law’s A serious call to a devout and holy life (London, 1729). The book behind the microscope is Christopher Smart’s Poems on several occasions (London, 1752) .

To the left we find a sand glass, 18th or 19th century (Wh.0363, Whipple Museum). This glass has been repaired in such a way that its running time cannot now be measured, but from its dimensions is probably a two- minute glass. Such simple methods of marking time were used when ‘streaming’ the ship’s log. The wooden log, attached to its rope, was thrown overboard; the frame was set with the upper glass full, and the rope was paid out as the ship sailed forwards. When the upper glass was empty, the sailor measured the length of rope paid out during that two minutes. From this, he could calculate the ship’s speed in nautical miles (knots) per hour.

The sandglass sits on eight volumes of the original nine of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (London, 1759-1767).

The marble bust is of Richard Bentley was born in Oulton in 1662 and attended St John’s College in Cambridge, graduating BA in 1680 and MA in 1683. He then moved to Wadham College in Oxford where he worked on Greek authors, beginning to acquire his reputation as the greatest English classicist. In 1693 he became keeper of the king’s libraries and in 1695 he became chaplain-in-ordinary to William III and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. In December 1699 he was named Master of Trinity, a position he held until his death in 1742.
Bentley’s tenure of the lodge was marked by terrible disagreements with the fellowship, partly from his wish to modernise the college, but exacerbated by his contempt for much of the fellowship and his own arrogance. Two great legal cases wound through the church courts as the anti-Bentley faction tried to rid themselves of the Master, and for his last few years he clung on by his fingernails, but he is Trinity’s longest-serving master.

1809 – 1909, oil on panel 30 x 24 inches, owned by Newnham College

1809 – 1909

At the top of this composition, visually inspired by William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement, we find a Head of the River blade from the 1884 May Bumps bearing the name of Australian Steve Fairbairn (7), later a world-famous rowing coach, who was instrumental in the dominance of Jesus College on the river around this time. Fairbairn rowed for the University no less than 4 times; his crewmate, Hutchinson (6), twice. Jesus College held the Mays headship for eleven consecutive years, from 1875 to 1885. A clock tower was built on the boathouse to commemorate what is often referred to as the Golden Age of rowing at Jesus.

The first Oxford vs. Cambridge Boat Race took place in 1856.

Below the blade is a tennis dress from the 1880s, used in tennis tournaments between the individual Newnham halls and between Newnham and Girton College. “Lawn tennis is by far the most popular form of exercise for students of both Halls. Each Hall possesses a Tennis Club of select players, in which the members are arranged in order of merit, matches between individual members of the club being played each term for the purpose. Each club has a separate tennis dress which has been designed with a view to the artistic combination of beauty and freedom of movement.”

The silver owl trophy below was used in the Oxford vs. Cambridge Ladies’ Double-handed Lawn Tennis Perpetual Challenge from 1882 to 1934.

The book in front of the tennis dress bears the coats-of-arms of the colleges founded in this period, namely Girton (1869), Newnham (1871), Selwyn (1882), Hughes Hall (1885) and St. Edmund’s (1896).

The other books on the left-hand side of this composition are: Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903), by Jane Harrison; The Playground of Europe, by Leslie Stephen; Thomas Babington Macaulay’s History of England from the Accession of James the Second (1848-55); The Golden Bough, by J.G. Frazer; Herschel’s Outlines of Astronomy (1846); On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), by Charles Darwin; A Shropshire Lad (1896), by A.E. Housman; Poems by Two Brothers (1827), by Lord Alfred Tennyson, written with his brothers Charles and Frederick; The Water-Babies (1863), by Charles Kingsley; and G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica (1903).

At the centre we have Charles Darwin’s achromatic microscope (Wh.3788, Whipple Museum), made by James Smith in 1846. Darwin used the microscope to work on barnacles and plants. Many of the anatomical variations that divide the sub-species of cirripedia can only be observed under a high power microscope, and so, with the advice of his microscopist friends in mind, Darwin decided to buy a large compound microscope. He bought the microscope, which is now in the collections of the Whipple Museum, for £34 in 1847. In a letter of May 10th 1848 he wrote:

“I have purchased a 1/8″ object glass, & it is grand. – I have been getting on well with my beloved cirripedia, & get more skilfull in dissection.”

To the right of the microscope we find the Prospectus of the Dictionary of National Biography by Leslie Stephen, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward Fitzgerald, and a poem, “The Bastille”, written by Rupert Brooke while he was at Rugby School. Below these pamphlets is the Girton College Fire brigade inkstand. The Fire Brigade was founded in 1879, on the initiative of two students who witnessed a nearby haystack go up in flames and realised that the College would be vulnerable in the event of fire. The idea of a student brigade was greeted with enthusiasm, and immediate training was given by Captain Shaw and his men of the London Fire Brigade.

Below the inkstand we have Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) by M.R. James, Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873) by James Clerk Maxwell, Principles of Economics (1890) by Alfred Marshall, and The Methods of Ethics (1874) by Henry Sidgwick.

In the lower right-hand corner, behind the red velvet curtain representing the founding of the ADC in 1855, we have the first page of Beati Quorum Via (1905), one of Three Latin Motets by Sir Charles Villier Stanford.

This composition sits atop a mahogany inlaid ivory chest of drawers belonging to Emily Davies, pioneer and leader in the campaign for women’s education, and one of the founders of Girton College.

1909 – 2009, oil on panel 30 x 24 inches, private collection

1909 – 2009

Behind the steps representing progress up into the future, we find a representation of a section of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator. It was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) with the intention of testing various predictions of high-energy physics. Cambridge particle physicists are involved in research into the existence of the hypothesized Higgs boson and new types of elementary particle. The Collider is funded by and built in collaboration with over 10,000 scientists and engineers from over 100 countries as well as hundreds of universities and laboratories.

The colleges founded in this period are Murray Edwards (New Hall) (1954), Churchill (1960), Darwin (1964), Clare Hall and Lucy Cavendish (1965), Fitzwilliam (1966), Homerton (1976) and Robinson (1979).

In the foreground, we find ears of wheat representing Amartya Sen’s contributions to welfare economics for his work on famine, human development theory and the underlying mechanisms of poverty; the carnation is a reference to Stephen Poliakoff, British television dramatist; and the butterfly to Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita.

The Egyptian cat, and the image of the pharoah’s life-force embracing Osiers, patron of the Underworld and the dead, represent the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter, financed by Lord Carnarvon, in 1922.

The Nobel Prize medal was awarded in 1951, jointly to Sir John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, in recognition of their pioneering research on the disintegration or ‘splitting’ of the atom, undertaken almost 20 years earlier in 1932 at the Cavendish Laboratory; the medal has been kindly given on loan to Churchill College.

The chess piece is a reference to Sir Trevor Robert Nunn, theatre and film director.

The photo, from 1948, represents the admission of women to full membership of the University.

To the right of the photo we find the final page of Churchill’s notes for his famous “Finest Hour” speech of 18 June 1940, set out in his distinctive blank verse “psalm” form. It was with these words, delivered in the House of Commons and then broadcast to the Nation, that Churchill rallied the British people.

The envelope behind the speech notes is a reference to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America.

The diagram above is Frank Whittle’s design for the jet engine.

To the right we have the DNA double helix, representing Crick and Watson’s discovery in 1953.

Behind this is a photo of the Centre for Mathematical Sciences, and a reference to the invention of HTML code.

The piles of books include a minute selection of the innumerable important works by Cambridge scholars over the past 100 years. They were photographed after the end of term, mid-December 2008, and many other books on the list of texts for this composition had been taken out as holiday reading or were not available in multiple copies at the UL.

Here we find the Cambridge Pocket Shakespeare: Hamlet; G. M. Trevelyan, Illustrated English Social History: 1; Ted Hughes, Birthday Letters; Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians; G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History; A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh, Now We are Six and The Christopher Robin Story Book; Patrick White, The Vivisector; Victoria Lucas (Sylvia Plath’s pseudonym), The Bell Jar; Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch; Peter Shaffer, Equus; Elizabeth Anscombe, Intention; Frederic Raphael, The Glittering Prizes; Geoffrey Hill, Mercian Hymns; Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time; Sebastian Faulks, A Fool’s Alphabet; Harry Hinsley, British Intelligence in the Second World War; Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China; and David Attenborough, Life on Earth.

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