Ten portraits hang in the Wren Library. They form part of a collection largely put together after the completion of the building in 1695. Portraits including sculpture were a recognised part of Library furnishing at that time and these paintings joined the sculptures described in an earlier blog. Most are an imposing size (over 2 metres tall) and are hung high above the bookcases.
The initial impetus behind the scheme was to honour benefactors to the building of the Wren and its collection. Bishop Hacket’s portrait was already owned by the College, but other portraits were either given to or purchased by Trinity in the late 17th or early 18th century. The remit was later extended to include other members of College and noteworthy people.
Below we describe the subjects of the ten portraits which you will find in the Wren Library today. Five of these (Hacket, Albemarle, Puckering, Thomas Nevile and Barrow) were part of the early decoration of the building. Ackermann’s 1814 view of the Library shows the portraits of Nevile (left) and Barrow (right) and at the south end under the painted glass window what are in all probability the smaller portraits of Cowley and Cotton.
Isaac Barrow was a student of Trinity College and an English Christian theologian and mathematician, who is generally given credit for his early role in the development of infinitesimal calculus. His student, Isaac Newton, went on to develop calculus in a modern form. Barrow also wrote other important treatises on mathematics, but is better known as a sermon writer. His sermons were published posthumously to considerable acclaim. Barrow became Master of Trinity College in 1673 and instigated the building of the Wren Library. The portrait was given to the College in 1752.
Christopher Monck, 2nd Duke of Albemarle, was a royalist who was rewarded with honours taken from the disgraced Duke of Monmouth including that of Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, a position he held from 1682 until his death in 1688. He donated £100 towards the building of the Wren Library and his portrait was one of the first to be hung in the newly completed building. It was purchased for £20 in 1691. Following an undistinguished army career he took up the position of Governor General of Jamaica but died only two years after his appointment.
Thomas Gale was born at Scruton, Yorkshire and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1672 he was appointed Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, a post he resigned in the same year to become High Master of St Paul’s School. In 1676 he was appointed a prebendary of St Paul’s, in 1677 a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1697 Dean of York. Dr Gale married a second cousin of Samuel Pepys the diarist and was the father of two noted antiquarians, Roger Gale and Samuel Gale. The College purchased his extensive collection of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts in 1697. His portrait was given to the College by his son, Roger in 1739.
Roger Gale, son of Thomas, became a reader at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University after being educated at Trinity. He was made a Fellow of Trinity in 1697 and in 1705 became the MP for Northallerton. He represented the constituency until 1713 and finally retired from public life in 1736 to devote himself to antiquarian interests. He served as the first vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries and treasurer of the Royal Society. Gale inherited his father’s library of manuscripts and books, which he donated to the College in 1738. His portrait was purchased the following year.
Sir Henry Puckering (alias Newton) was was elected as a MP for Warwickshire in 1661. He held that seat throughout the Cavalier Parliament, and in 1679 was elected as an MP for Warwick. His activity as a justice of the peace, together with his leniency towards Roman Catholics, made him unpopular, but he was known for his liberality to the poor. In 1691 he gave most of his library to Trinity College, and afterwards for a period was in residence there; his donation included the Milton manuscripts. The College purchased his portrait for £21 10s in 1702. As a major donor, Puckering’s portrait was one of the first to be hung in the newly completed Library.
Thomas Nevile was educated at Pembroke College and became Dean of Peterborough in 1590 and Dean of Canterbury in 1597. He was Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge from 1582 until 1593 when Elizabeth I appointed him Master of Trinity College, Cambridge (1593–1615). He used his personal wealth and influence to remodel the College including the area now known as Great Court, as well as building Nevile’s Court. He died in 1615. Nevile’s portrait, along with that of Isaac Barrow, was given by Samuel Knight in 1715.
Abraham Cowley was a child genius and in his tenth year, he composed the Tragicall History of Piramus and Thisbe, an epic romance written in a six-line stanza, a style of his own invention. Educated at Trinity he became one of the leading English poets of the 17th century. He was a Fellow at Trinity until ejected by the Parliamentarians in 1643. The three completed books of Cowley’s great (albeit unfinished) English epic, The Civil War, was finally published in full for the first time in 1973. On retirement he became engaged in horticulture and wrote on the virtues of the contemplative life. Cowley was buried in Westminster Abbey beside the ashes of Chaucer and Spenser.
Sir Robert Cotton, an antiquary, is best known for his collection of manuscripts. A graduate of Jesus College, he started his collection at the age of 18 and assembled a magnificent library of medieval and early modern manuscripts, relating primarily to the history, literature and culture of the British Isles. These included the Lindisfarne Gospels and the only known manuscript of the epic poem Beowulf. The manuscripts were presented to the nation by Cotton’s grandson, forming one of the foundation collections of the British Museum (and hence the British Library) in 1753.
John Hacket took his degree at Trinity and was elected a Fellow in 1614. He was ordained in 1618 and became Rector of Stoke Hammond, Buckinghamshire, and Kirkby Underwood, Lincolnshire in 1621. He was chaplain to James I, Archdeacon of Bedford from 1631-61 and consecrated as Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry in 1661 overseeing the restoration of the cathedral there. Hacket left his books to the University of Cambridge and gave £100 to Trinity College Library in addition to financing Bishop’s Hostel. Hacket’s portrait was given to the College in 1680 but was framed and installed soon after the completion of the Wren Library.
Jeremiah Radcliffe, Fellow, senior Bursar and Vice-Master of Trinity from 1597 to 1611, was also a member of one of the three panels of translators appointed by King James I to work on the Authorised Version of the Bible. His portrait was originally intended for the College Hall, but was moved into the Library in 1761, displacing a portrait of Charles Montagu, the 6th Earl of Halifax.
For those planning to visit the Wren Library, please note that four portraits are currently removed for conservation (Thomas Gale, Roger Gale, Abraham Cowley and Robert Cotton).
McKitterick, D. (ed), The Making of the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge (Cambridge, 1995)
All of Trinity College’s oil paintings can be found on the Art UK website.