This purse once belonged to Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), the Scottish historical novelist, playwright and poet whose compositions include Ivanhoe, the Lady of the Lake and Rob Roy. As well as the purse, here in the Library we have many of his works including a copy of the first edition of Halidon Hill (an historical poem about the battle of 1333) in its original wrappers and a rare early version of the first canto of The Lay of the Last Minstrel (a narrative verse romance).
The purse is engraved on the upper rim of the clasp with the words ‘The gift of the Author of Marmion, &c to A. Cunningham, the Purse which he wore on the 17th of August, 1810.’ The poem Marmion to which the engraving refers was written in 1808 and describes the Battle of Flodden fought between the English and the Scots in 1513. The poem enjoyed immediate popularity and contains the well-known lines: “Oh! what a tangled web we weave/When first we practise to deceive!”
The person to whom the purse was given was the Scottish poet and author, Allan Cunningham (1784-1842). Cunningham was born in rural Scotland and early in his career he collected and submitted a number of works for R. H. Cromek’s collection of ballads, Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, published in 1810. It later transpired that at least half of these poems were Cunningham’s own compositions. Encouraged by Cromek, Cunningham moved to London and, though trained as a stonemason, he worked in a variety of jobs including as a journalist and newspaper poet. In 1814, however, he was taken into the employment of the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey, a job which provided him with the opportunity to make many literary contacts. He continued to write prolifically in his spare time and amongst many titles he produced a play Sir Marmaduke Maxwell in 1820, a four volume collection entitled The Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern in 1825 and between 1829 and 1833 he produced his six volume work, Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors and Architects.
Cunningham’s connection with Scott began around the time of the publication of Marmion in 1808 when Cunningham walked the considerable distance from Nithsdale to Edinburgh simply to be able to catch a glimpse of the author. The two did not meet face-to-face until 1820 when Cunningham, acting on behalf of his employer Chantrey, visited Scott (who was in London to receive his baronetcy) to ask him to sit for a bust. Their association endured as Scott continued to advise Cunningham on his literary efforts and publicly praised Cunningham in the introductory epistle to his (Scott’s) 1822 work, Fortunes of Nigel. He also helped Cunningham to secure cadetships for two of his sons. Cunningham himself wrote a biography of Scott which was published after the older man’s death in 1832.
The purse was given to the Library by Revd William Cunningham (1849-1919), an economic historian, Trinity Fellow, rector of Great St Mary’s Cambridge and Archdeacon of Ely. The purse and works by Sir Walter Scott are currently on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours.
Today is the 700th anniversary of the establishment of the King’s Scholars in Cambridge, an event which marks the very beginning of Trinity’s story. On 7 July 1317 an official letter, or writ, was sent on behalf of King Edward II to the sheriff of Cambridgeshire, telling him that the king had sent twelve children from his household in the care of a man named John de Baggeshote (their master) to study at Cambridge. The children were all boys (girls were not admitted to universities till the nineteenth century). These Scholars, who were probably aged about fourteen, lived in rented accommodation. The sheriff was ordered to pay their expenses out of the money he collected on the king’s behalf, and to obtain a receipt for the money he gave them. This writ is believed to mark the very first establishment of the King’s Scholars. It was followed by others, ordering payments and gradually increasing the size of the community.
It seems unlikely that the king would have sent the boys to study at Cambridge without making arrangements with the sheriff for their maintenance, and this was evidently the first time that they were mentioned to him. Later writs are less detailed and they all refer back to arrangements already made, while the earliest surviving receipt for money paid to the Scholars covers a period beginning two days after this document. This has been assumed, quite reasonably, to be the day on which John de Baggeshote and the boys arrived in Cambridge. When the sheriff went to the Exchequer in Westminster to make his account he handed in this letter, together with the receipt for the money he had paid to King’s Scholars, and the clerks credited his account accordingly.
Letter from the king to the sheriff of Cambridge, 7 July 1317
Translation: Edward by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine, to the sheriff of Cambridge, greeting. Whereas we have sent our beloved clerks John de Baggeshote and twelve others, children of our chapel, to the university of Cambridge to live there in study at our expense, in order to profit […], we order that from the issues of your bailiwick you cause to be paid to the said John every week for his commons [… twenty-]one pence, and for each of the said twelve children per week for their commons [fourteen pence, and] for the cost of their hostel and their other necessities between now and next Michaelmas […] forty shillings; making an indenture between yourself and the said John for what you have thus paid him, by the testimony of whom and of which we will cause a tally for the amount to be raised at our Exchequer, by which you will have due allowance on your account. Given under our privy seal at Bockeby [Long Buckby, in Northamptonshire] on the seventh day of July at the end of the tenth year of our reign.
In the middle ages the king constantly travelled about the country with his household. His main secretarial staff stayed in Westminster, using the Great Seal to authenticate important official documents. But a smaller group of officials accompanied him with the Privy Seal, which could be used to issue letters, or ‘writs’, under his direct instruction, like this one. These ‘writs of privy seal’ were written in French, still at this time the usual spoken language of the court. The seal would have been attached to a small strip of parchment at the bottom, but this has been torn away. The document has also been damaged by damp, leaving a hole in the middle.
What do we know about the Scholars?
In the fourteenth century most Cambridge students lived in rented hostels under the care of a master, and this was the arrangement adopted for the King’s Scholars. The earliest writ provides for the payment of forty shillings to cover the cost of their hostel and other necessities for about twelve weeks. We do not know, however, exactly where they lived.
The Scholars were expected to sleep at least two to a bed, as was usual in the middle ages. When two new boys, John de Kingston and John de Kelsey, were sent to Cambridge in September 1317 it was specifically ordered that a bed should be bought for them, and the sheriff’s next receipt duly recorded the purchase of ‘a coverlet, a blanket, two linen sheets, and a piece of canvas’, together costing twenty shillings. Note that there is no mention of a bedstead: the boys would have slept on the floor on a straw mattress, probably made from the canvas. The bedding could then be rolled out of the way in the daytime.
Food and Drink
The Master and Scholars received weekly allowances of 21d. and 14d. respectively for their ‘commons’, that is, the food and drink they ate and drank together. We have no specific information about the arrangements made for meals. The community probably employed servants to help buy and prepare food and drink. It is unlikely that much can have been produced in the household itself: some durable items may have been stored, but it would have been necessary for someone to go to the market every day to buy fresh provisions.
Grants were made to the Master and Scholars from time to time to cover the cost of rent and other necessities, including clothing. But sometimes specific grants were made for the purchase of gowns and hoods, usually at Christmas or Easter. In 1319, for instance, the Master and Scholars were instructed to join the king’s household at York to celebrate Christmas. In preparation for this visit red cloth for gowns and fur for hoods was purchased from merchants at Bury St Edmunds. These were expensive items: the cloth cost over £21, the skins nearly £4.
Accounts for the purchase of gowns are one of the main sources for the names of the Scholars and their dates of admission and departure.
Some of the Scholars may have been at Cambridge for only a short time, but many stayed for several years. Of the sixteen in residence in 1325 twelve had been there since at least 1319, and one of them went on to be a member of the King’s Hall.
In most cases the students’ studies would have been confined to the Arts course, which was based on grammar, logic, and rhetoric — in other words language (Latin), reasoning, and persuasive speaking. Some instruction may also have been given in arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. After completing the arts course, the most advanced students proceeded to the higher faculties of Law, Medicine, and Theology.
The King’s Scholars would mainly have attended the general lectures given in the university by recent graduates, but they probably also received some teaching in their own household.
The first master, or warden, John de Baggeshote, was replaced some time between 1321 and 1325 by Simon de Bury, who died in office on 3 October 1331. His successor John de Langtoft took over a rather disorderly community, and a royal commission was sent to Cambridge to help him examine the Scholars’ progress and behaviour, improve discipline, and remove those who were no longer benefiting from their studies.
Langtoft, who had apparently only been appointed master while he waited for a position in the church to become available, stayed for less than two years. Thomas Powys, on the other hand, who took his place, had a very long connection with the community. At the time of his appointment he had already been a Scholar for at least eight years, and in 1337 he became the first warden of the King’s Hall, a position he kept till his death in 1360.
The later careers of only a few Scholars are known, though it is likely that many, like the later members of the King’s Hall, went into the royal service.
Robert de Imworth, for instance, a Scholar from 1318 to 1329, was appointed a purveyor, or purchaser, to the household of Queen Philippa (Edward III’s consort) in 1330 and was sent on royal business to Ireland in 1346. He married a woman named Sara, and the Robert de Imworth who was a member of the King’s Hall in the 1340s may have been their son. Their social status is indicated by the fact that their mansion at Egham was permitted to have its own chapel.
Hugh de Sutton left the community in 1321 to become a Franciscan friar, and several of those who went on to become members of the King’s Hall eventually obtained preferments in the church.
Richard de Wymondewold, a Scholar from 1329 to 1337, obtained a doctorate in Civil Law, married a woman named Syfrida, and became an advocate in the papal court at Rome.
Twenty years later Edward’s son, Edward III, transformed this community into a college of thirty-two scholars, who were to live together in a house he had recently purchased next to St John’s Hospital (later converted into St John’s College). The house was to be known as the Hall of the King’s Scholars of Cambridge (aula scolarium regis Cantebrigie), and Thomas Powys was nominated the college’s first warden. King’s Hall remained in existence till 1546, when it was dissolved as part of the arrangements for founding Trinity. All its buildings and property, and some of its personnel, were transferred to the new college. Parts of the older college still exist, including the Great Gate and the Clock Tower.
An exhibition focusing on the period from 1317 to 1337, before the King’s Scholars had a permanent home in Cambridge is currently on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours.
John Hacket (1592-1670) was a member and fellow of Trinity College. As Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry he oversaw the rebuilding of the cathedral, contributing £3,500 and raising far more. He was also generous towards his former college making a bequest of £1200 in his will towards the rebuilding of the ‘ruined’ Garret Hostel. The work was completed in 1671 and the building was known thereafter as Bishop’s Hostel. Hacket’s will also stated that rental income from the new building should go to the college Library for the purchase of books. At the time the Library was housed in Great Court, but Hacket’s bequest appears to have been an impetus towards the building of the new Wren Library. Work began in 1676 and was completed just under 20 years later in 1695. These two book stamps were purchased in 1677, almost certainly so that the Library could mark those books which came to it under the terms of the bequest.
Volume R.2.79 bears the impression of the larger of the two stamps on the front and back covers. Inside it contains a copy of a letter written by Hacket announcing his intention to leave a gift to the college. It also includes a copy of accounts from Bishop’s Hostel from the late 17th century. This includes an item from 1677 detailing the purchase of the book stamps for £1 15s.
A portrait of Hacket (probably given by his son, Andrew Hacket) hangs at the far end of the Wren Library. The Junior Bursar’s accounts for 1679-80 record a payment of 6s 6d ‘for the carriage of Bishop Hackett’s picture from London’. Hacket is depicted in Bishop’s clothes, holding an unrolled scroll with a red seal. The writing on the scroll records the detail of Hacket’s bequest to the college. In the background there are paintings of Lichfield Cathedral and Bishop’s Hostel.
The Bishop’s Hostel accounts record that in 1681, £10 was spent on books from Dr Isaac Barrow’s Library. These included, as examples, a work on physics by Marino Ghetaldi (T.10.6) and Hypomnemata Mathematica by Simon Stevin (Q.16.91.t1). The bindings of these books do not, however, bear the mark of either of the book stamps.
The Library also owns Hacket’s small 13th-century Bible in two parts (B.10.24 and B.10.25) as well as a number of other books which were written by him including a volume of his sermons, his play Loyola published in 1648 which had been performed in Cambridge before James I in 1623, and a number of copies of his longest work – Scrinia reserata– on the life of his patron Archbishop John Williams. The volume of sermons, published posthumously in 1674, contains a frontispiece portrait of the author. The Library also owns the copper plate used for printing this portrait. By the time it was reused in a volume dated 1702 the wording on the bottom had been scratched out. Hacket’s portrait was presumably included in the later volume (which was not written by him) because it had been bought for the Library under the terms of his bequest.
The book stamps and some of the other items referred to in this blog are currently on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours.
Crewe 80.20 is a beautiful example of a ‘Hanway binding’, the name given to bindings specially commissioned by Jonas Hanway, an 18th century philanthropist. Often bound in red morocco (goatskin) and decorated with distinctive tooling, these books were designed to catch the eye and to help circulate ideas and principles that were close to Hanway’s heart. What is unique about this book is the inclusion of lines of verse written by hand on the front flyleaves which directly relate to the ornaments on the spine and cover. Hanway is known to have suggested or designed a number of emblematic tools which were used by his second binder, identity unknown. The photograph below of the spine shows some of these emblematic tools:
Hanway made his money as a merchant working for the Russia Company, and the tale of his trials and adventures as a trader in Russia and Persia formed the subject of his well-received first publication, ‘An historical account of the British trade over the Caspian Sea’ (1753). Thereafter he began to write voluminously and published 85 known books and pamphlets. His driving force was his philanthropic interests, which ranged far and wide. Philanthropy for Hanway was a means to help people, in a practical and efficient manner, to support themselves; he saw no use in the wasting of money on lavish social events as a form of philanthropic giving. In 1756 he set up the Marine Society (which still exists today) to help recruit men, and later boys, to the Royal Navy; in 1758 he was elected governor of the Foundling Hospital, a children’s home which cared for and educated the destitute; through charities and societies, and his own writings, he supported numerous causes, including among others the lot of chimney sweeps and prostitutes, penal reform, and the raising of funds for people affected by a particular war or disaster; his lobbying and pamphleteering on behalf of disadvantaged children led to the passing of meaningful legislation.
A brief look at a contemporary of Hanway might shed light on why it was deemed important to distribute texts in special bindings. Thomas Hollis, a political propagandist, used his wealth to spread the ideas of republicanism as a means of protecting and advancing English liberty. He accomplished this by distributing suitable texts to libraries, initially in Britain and on the Continent, and later to America. The fine bindings were designed to enable such books to stand out and the emblems that were stamped upon them to further the libertarian sentiments. As Hollis himself wrote on the bindings of books, ‘… by long experience I have found it necessary to attend to them for other libraries, having thereby drawn notice, with preservation, on many excellent books, or curious, which, it is probable, would else have passed unheeded or neglected.’ A large number of Hollis bindings have survived, and several, among them some of Hollis’s own copies, can be found in the Wren Library’s Rothschild collection. An example at RW.6.14 is presented below:
While Hollis left no key to the meaning of his emblems, do we have here, in the form of verse, a clue to the meaning of some of Hanway’s?
Hanway had a certain reputation for eccentricity. He was (it is said) the first man to carry an umbrella around the streets of London at a time when it was usual only for women to do so. He wrote against tea, a drink that was still a relative novelty in England at this time, in his ‘An Essay On Tea, Considered As Pernicious To Health, Obstructing Industry, And Impoverishing The Nation: With An Account Of Its Growth And Great Consumption In These Kingdoms’, which was refuted at length by none other than Samuel Johnson, an ardent tea drinker, in his review of Hanway’s 1757 work ‘A Journal of Eight Days Journey from Portsmouth to Kingston upon Thames, With Miscellaneous Thoughts, Moral and Religious, in a Series of Letters’, in which ‘An essay on tea’ appears.Overall, his contemporaries seem to have had a mixed opinion of Jonas Hanway: on the one hand respectful of his philanthropic work and on the other slightly disdainful of his prodigious, if turgid, writing output; he has been described as ‘one of the most indefatigable and splendid bores of English history’.
Carcanet Press has recently published an anthology of poems by members of Trinity College. Poems included date from the sixteenth through to the twenty-first century by well-known writers such as George Herbert, Lord Byron and A. E. Housman.
The volume also contains poems by people who were known in other fields, but who also wrote poetry. These poets include the essayist, Francis Bacon; the novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray; and the physicist, James Clerk Maxwell. The twenty-first century is represented by poets including Emma Jones (b. 1977) and Rebecca Watts (b. 1983).
The Library holds manuscripts of some of the poetry included in the volume and work by Tennyson and Housman can be viewed online.
Trinity Poets: an anthology of poems by members of Trinity College, Cambridge (Manchester, 2017) edited by A. Poole and A Leighton can be purchased from the Wren Library during public opening hours as well as from bookshops.
In the early 1630s Isaac de Caus created at Wilton near Salisbury a formal garden for the sophisticated, learned and hugely wealthy Philip Herbert, fourth earl of Pembroke. De Caus, a French Huguenot exile specialised in the design and construction of grottoes and waterworks and Lord Pembroke had been part of the embassy sent to Paris by Charles I to accompany his prospective bride, Henrietta Maria, to England. While he was in Paris, Pembroke resided in the Palais de Luxembourg with its magnificent formal gardens which were probably the inspiration for Wilton, one of the earliest examples in England of a garden in the French style.
Nine and a half acres of garden were enclosed by a wall and divided by a broad path. The garden with waterworks, statuary and parterres de broderie , flanked by arbours was some 400 feet wide and a thousand feet long. The River Nadder which ran across the site was included in the garden scheme and enclosed in a “wilderness” and the river provided water for the many fountains. The garden was studded with statues and a magnificent grotto at the far end of the garden was entered through a classical façade and contained spouting sea monsters, a table with hidden jets to wet the unwary, and hydraulically simulated birdsong. An elevated walkway from the grotto offered a view of the south façade of Wilton House.
Sir Roy Strong has described the garden at Wilton, as “a unique synthesis of the Renaissance Gardener’s art”, a “symbol of the halcyon days of the King’s peace” and “the greatest of English Renaissance gardens”.
The garden survived in this form until the 1730s by which time fashion had turned from the formal to the informal and a later earl of Pembroke had Lancelot “Capability” Brown sweep away the old garden and create a “natural” landscape in the English style.
The garden was illustrated in a set of engravings published by de Caus in the late 1640s. Entitled Wilton Garden the book is one of the rarest and most important books in gardening history. It is rare, because few copies are known to exist and important because it is one of a very few visual and contemporary records of an early garden scheme.
The copy of Wilton Garden in the library of Trinity College Cambridge is one of only four known copies in the United Kingdom. There are probably fewer than ten copies in the world. This book came to the library in 2016 as part of a substantial bequest of books by the late Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe. The book contains the bookplate of the Duchess’s father, the earl, later the marquess, of Crewe which suggests that the book was owned by Lord Crewe before his elevation to the marquessate in 1911. Other than this there are no indications of provenance. The book has its original binding. The text is in French and it contains an introduction, a table of contents and 27 plates. Uniquely, it contains a plate of the south front of the house before the fire of 1648. This is not known in any other copy.
This month’s curio is a Hornbook. These were used as primers by young children learning to read and write. Typically they were a piece of written or printed material pasted onto a board (often made of wood, ivory or lead) and covered with a sheet of transparent horn. The horn covering protected the text from tears or marking. Sometimes the back board was also decorated. The handle made them easier to hold, leaving the other hand free to write. Horn books usually displayed the alphabet in upper and lower case, sometimes also followed by numbers and the Lord’s Prayer.
All that remains on the Trinity hornbook is a fragment of the Lord’s Prayer. The alphabet would have originally been displayed above this on the upper half of the paddle. The horn covering was usually edged with brass or leather. On this hornbook, you can see the marks where the edging of the horn would originally have been held down with tacks or nails. The hole on the handle would have allowed a cord to be threaded through it, allowing the book to be fastened to the body.
Visual evidence of the use of hornbooks dates back to the 14th century (see, for example, here) and they are referred to in 16th century literature, but the oldest actual survivals are 17th century. Hornbooks were produced quite cheaply and in large numbers but not many have survived. Later hornbooks were also produced in gingerbread.
Horn was also sometimes used to cover book labels. We have a few examples here in the Library. The first (B.4.24) is on a velvet binding with the title recorded under horn nailed down with green silk ribbon.
There are two similar bindings in the Library of Corpus Christi College. These bindings are characteristic of the ‘Old Royal’ Library of Henry VIII. Another example (O.4.42) has a label on the lower right hand corner of the back cover with a handwritten title (probably 13th century) under horn held down by nails. Labeling such as this probably indicates ownership in a well-ordered and organised Library. This manuscript was owned by Abbey Dore in Herefordshire.
B.15.2 has its original label pasted to the inside front cover. You can see the holes where the nails held it in place. This label indicates that it is from the library of Syon Abbey, Middlesex. The Abbey had an extensive library prior to the Dissolution which was divided into two collections: one for the monks and one for the nuns. The label records the book title (divisiones thematum super epistolas et evangelia dominicalia cum aliis), 2nd folio (miam et) and original donor (Bracebridge). Medieval cataloguers would often use the first few words of the second folio to distinguish between different copies of the same text.
Finally, B.16.13 has a horn label (early 16th century) on the back cover which records that it was a gift from Thomas Traver, vicar of Walthamstow in Essex. There are also indications of chain marks at the bottom of the first leaves. The library to which this volume was given has not been identified with any certainty, but labels on outer covers (rather than on the spine) make more sense in a chained library where the books might be displayed on reading desks: see, for example, the chained library at Zutphen in The Netherlands.
The hornbook and volumes B.15.2 and O.4.42 are currently on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours.
Recent additions to the Digital Library include an Italian poem printed in the sixteenth century, a musical score by C. Hubert Parry, an eighteenth-century notebook and an album of photographs from the First World War.
Grylls.6.218, Germini sopra quaranta meretrice della citta di Firenze
A poem in octaves, I Germini, is a burlesque take on the game of Tarot, and describes 40 of the 92 cards that made up the whole set in the Florentine version of the game. In the original game, these cards represented a varied series of characters (the Madman, the Pope, the Emperor…), and sometimes portrayed the city’s noble women. In this version, the situation is inverted, and the women portrayed are actually prostitutes. It is likely that contemporary readers would have recognised some Florentine noblewomen behind the comical descriptions. This text also holds a particular place in the history of card games, as it reports the exact order of the germini which remained unchanged until the beginning of the twentieth century, when the game disappeared from Italy.
Parry’s score was presented to the Library in 1891, three years after the first performance by the Bach Choir at St James’ Hall in London on 17th May 1887 in a concert to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. It was conducted by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford who, earlier in his career, had been the organist of Trinity College and who had commissioned the piece. The composition was based on Milton’s ode, ‘To a Solemn Musick’. The Library also owns the autograph copy of Milton’s manuscript (R.3.4) containing this ode (page 4).
This small notebook of miscellany was possibly kept by the printer, William Bowyer (1699-1777). It contains a fascinating collection of material including recipes, ‘stories’, receipts and memoranda. The recipes include a seed cake (12r), blacking for shoes, lip salve, and a remedy for the bite of a mad dog (at the bottom of f.6r). It passed into the possession of John Nichols (1745-1826), Bowyer’s apprentice and business partner who inherited the printing business on Bowyer’s death. Under successive generations of the Nichols family, the printing business became well-established and particularly well known for producing books of antiquarian interest.
G.13.112, Album of Photographs of the 1st Eastern General Hospital
This album of photographs of the 1st Eastern General Hospital was given to the library by Myfanwy Griffiths in 1946. She was a relative (probably a daughter) of Colonel Joseph Griffiths (1863-1945), a surgeon at Addenbrooke’s who was instrumental in the establishment of the Hospital and its Commander. The album contains photos taken during the period in 1914 when the Hospital was housed in Nevile’s Court and the surrounding grounds of the College. It later moved more permanently to a cricket ground shared by King’s and Clare Colleges which is now the site of University Library. For more about the hospital see our earlier blog.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) was a student at Trinity between 1827 and 1831. Some of his most important manuscripts, which are kept in the Wren Library, have been made available online via the Cambridge Digital Library. The collection includes the earliest extant full-scale draft of his best known poem, In Memoriam. This manuscript was a gift to the College in 1897 from Lady Simeon who had been given the manuscript by Tennyson himself in 1886.
Later – in 1924 – the College’s collection was increased by a bequest from Tennyson’s son, Hallam which included many of his father’s notebooks. However the terms of this bequest limited access to the material: the manuscripts could not be published or used to provide variant readings and readers were only permitted to make short notes. The Library was, however, free to display the manuscripts. It was not until 1969 that the family agreed to lift the restrictions.
The collection is of interest, not simply because it includes drafts of some of Tennyson’s most lyrical poetry, but because it also contains many sketches and doodles made by the poet. Together the words and images provide new opportunities for understanding his process of composition.
The newly established Archive seeks eventually to bring together all Tennyson material into one centralised digital library. In a collaboration with our colleagues at the University Library, the manuscripts kept in the Wren Library are the first to be included.
This month’s curio is a piece of stranded knitting worked by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79) for his paternal aunt, Mrs Isabella Wedderburn, when he was about 12 years old. The intricate design in stocking stitch includes a Union Jack and lozenge shapes.
Two explanations have been found for the use to which the ‘Abigail’ was put: i) in a letter sent when the knitting was presented to the Library, it is described as an accessory for holding down sleeves when putting on a jacket and ii) Clerk Maxwell’s school friend and biographer described it as a sling for holding a workbasket. Both explanations presumably relate to the popular association of the name ‘Abigail’ with female servants.
Here in the Library we have a small archive of items (Add.ms.b.52) from Clerk Maxwell’s childhood. His mother died when he was young and thereafter he spent much of his time at the family estate of Glenlair and, after beginning his formal schooling at the Edinburgh Academy, with the Wedderburn family at 31 Heriot Row, Edinburgh. He also spent time with the family of another maternal aunt, Jane Cay.
His family on both his father’s and his mother’s side included talented artists but he was greatly encouraged, in particular, by his older first cousin, Jemima Wedderburn who later in life, as Jemima Blackburn (1823-1909), became a renowned watercolourist. The designs featured below demonstrate young James’ obsession with geometric form and harmonious colour combinations. James had accompanied his father to the Royal Scottish Society of Arts in 1845-6 and saw the work of David Ramsay Hay (1798-1866). Hay’s decorative work used geometrical symmetry and young James was inspired to develop a method of drawing ovals using string around pins.
Later, in his first year at Edinburgh University (1847), Clerk Maxwell developed these ideas about oval curves and wrote an important paper on analytical geometry which was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. During his time at Trinity (1850-56), he developed his interest in colour by experimenting using a colour wheel. The scientist Thomas Young (1773-1829) had suggested that there were three distinct receptors in the eye which responded to different ranges of light. Using the spinning wheel to mix the primary lights of red, blue and yellow, Clerk Maxwell was able to demonstrate that, if colours are mixed with mathematical precision, then it is possible to synthesise any colour. The experiments also revealed that we see colour in lights differently to colour in pigments. For example, a mixture of blue and yellow light produces a pinkish hue, but blue and yellow pigments mixed together make green. Clerk Maxwell’s analysis using the colour wheel led him to devise a colour triangle for calculating the ratios of the three primary lights needed to create any particular colour.
James Clerk Maxwell is now remembered as one of the most influential scientists of all time. His later work included study of the composition of Saturn’s rings (drawing the conclusion that they were composed of a myriad of small, solid particles). This conclusion was confirmed by the work undertaken by the Voyager space probes of the 1980s.
Other important research was on electromagnetism and he devised a set of equations which later formed the basis for Einstein’s theory of relativity. When the Cavendish Laboratory was established here in Cambridge in the 1870s and became the first Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics. Clerk Maxwell died in Cambridge in 1879.