Wittgenstein’s Letter to the Garden Committee

The papers of the eminent philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein are available via the Wren Digital Library. Outwith this archive, however, is a curious letter he addressed to the Garden Committee of the College in 1934, of incidental interest because of his studied objections to their plans for the Fellows’ Garden.

View of the Garden

The area of land to the west of Trinity College and alongside Queen’s Road was bought for the college in 1871 (it had been leased for about 60 years before that). At the time it was known as the ‘Roundabout’ because of the circular walks within it, but from then on it was designated as the Fellows’ Garden. Designs were provided by the landscape gardener William Brodrick Thomas (1811-98) who also designed the ornamental lake at Sandringham and the Garden Committee was set up to oversee the implementation of these plans. They included retaining the already established avenue of elms and the ‘roundabout’ path, but adding flowering shrubs and ornamental trees.

Wittgenstein's Garden Plan
Wittgenstein’s Garden Plan

Summer grasses in the Fellows’ Garden were traditionally left uncut, but in 1933 some experimental paths were cut through the long grass. Ludwig Wittgenstein – by this time a fellow of Trinity – in a letter to the secretary offered (presumably unsolicited) opinions and advice on this decision. Affronted by the line of the paths, he suggested re-positioning them as well as making adjustments to the shape of the flower beds and the position of trees. He also criticised the planting schemes “… the kidney shaped bed with the dahlias in it looks very bad because of the border of Veronica round the dahlias. This fringe makes it look like a gaudy birthday cake.”

No response is known!

The Fellows’ Garden is open to the public once a year as part of the National Gardens Scheme and also during the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival.

Birdsong in the Fellows’ Garden


Further Reading:

Jane Brown, Trinity College: a garden history (Cambridge, 2002)