A cavity in a Cambridge College

DURING A RECENT visit to Cambridge, I noticed a hemispherical cavity into which an electric doorbell push button had been fitted. it was at Peterhouse College. I posted a picture of it on Facebook and received the following range of replies and reactions to it. Here they are in the order they appeared:

“My guess is there used to be a handle in there to operate a mechanical bell. There would have been a brass escutcheon plate, dished like the hole to accommodate the clenched hand grasping the handle. There seems to be a void behind the current bell button, the linkage probably went through there. You can see a shadow either side, rather like a bow tie, where the escutcheon was.”

“.. pull a cord or chain?”

“That will summon David Jason.”

“A square bell in a round hole”

“This was my husband’s college (about 45 years ago). I’m sure he’ll remember this well.”

“Yes, but I would expect the bar or chain operating the original to come straight out of the back of the cone, and there’s no hint of that.”

The range of comments was from frivolous to informative. I find that posting interesting items on Facebook often elicits useful information about them. By judicious posting and cross-checking information provided, Facebook can become a useful research tool.

DEFACED TO DEFY: an exciting exhibition in Cambridge

POLITICAL PROTEST AND CONFLICT can be expressed in a wide variety of ways. Defacement of commonplace items is one of these. It forms the basis of a temporary exhibition, “Defaced!”, being held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (Cambridgeshire) until the 8th of January 2023.

Many of the exhibits on display are banknotes that have been defaced or altered in design to express a political message or protest.  One example of this is a five-dollar US banknote with the words “All Lives Can’t Matter until Black Lives Matter” embossed on its portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Another is a five hundred Indian rupee note with a coloured picture of an endangered rare bird printed over it. Yet another banknote is designed to look like a British £20 note at first sight, but it soon becomes apparent that it is not what it seems: it has been modified to include a portrait of ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the words “The ruling class. We own you.” It also includes the words “We were born to lead, you were born to follow.” Other banknotes have been redesigned so that they appear to be valueless: e.g. zero Japanese Yen and zero US Dollars. The diversity of altered banknotes and parodies of actual banknotes on display is staggering.

Occasionally banknotes lose their value during periods of hyperinflation. The exhibition includes several examples of objects, such as wallets, made using trashed valueless notes. Particularly striking is a life-size sculpture of a hand grenade made using shredded PRC ten Yuan banknotes.

There are also many coins on show. They have all been altered to express protest and/or political sentiments. One dramatic example of this is a coin issued in France during the reign of Napoleon III. This was altered by carefully cutting around and removing the portrait of Napoleon III from the coin, leaving the rest of the coin intact. There are several coins and medals on display that depict political events such as the American Revolution and the Peterloo Massacre. A few coins relate to the unrest in Northern Ireland. One of them is a 1970 Republic of Ireland fifty pence coin with the words “Ulster is British” stamped on it.

The show at the Fitzwilliam does not confine itself to the defacement and parody of currency for political and protest purposes. It also includes currency either modified or specially created for special purposes. Simple examples of these are overprinting of low value notes during hyperinflation and modification of currency for use by the military or in POW camps. There are also coins, notes, and certificates created for specific purposes, for example for use in the Siege of Mafeking and for use by Boer prisoners imprisoned by the British in India.

Although most of the exhibits are related to currency (coins and notes), one room is dedicated to a spectacular sculptural exhibit, an installation called “Big Bang 2. Debt in transit”. A video is projected onto a wall. It shows a Ford Transit van being blown up by explosives. As it flies into pieces, bits of paper all marked with the word ‘debt’ float down like snowflakes. The film is projected in a room in which the fragments of the van are suspended from the ceiling so that the viewer appears to be seeing a still from the video but in three dimensions. The installation, which is a protest on the exorbitant interest on payday loans, makes a very powerful visual impact. (SEE my video of this posted on YouTube: https://youtu.be/7MgdDTfBivw)

Next to London Bridge

THE PRESENT FISHMONGERS Hall at the northern end of London Bridge was constructed in 1827, following the completion of the London Bridge, which now stands in Lake Havasu City in Arizona (USA). Built in a neo-classical style, the Hall, which faces the Thames and King William Street, was designed by Henry Roberts (1803-1876), assisted by a young architect who would later be known as Sir George Gilbert-Scott (1811-1878).

Recently, the Hall was associated with a horrific act perpetrated by a terrorist Usman Khan (1991-2019). Khan, whom it was believed to have been reformed and rehabilitated from his terrorist leanings, was attending a conference on prisoner rehabilitation arranged by the University of Cambridge at Fishmonger’s Hall on the 29th of November 2019. During the conference, he put on what turned out to be a fake suicide vest. He threatened to blow up the Hall. He did not do that, but instead fatally stabbed two of the other conference delegates (both in their twenties): Saskia Jones and Jack Merrett. The latter had studied at the University of Cambridge. As Khan fled across London Bridge, he was tackled by members of the public before being shot dead by a policeman. What had been intended to be a well-intentioned project, ended up as a national tragedy. It illustrated that although a person’s mind can be programmed to become a fanatic, undoing this programming is far more difficult than most people, even experts, imagine.

A pair of post boxes

WHILE WALKING IN CAMBRIDGE, I spotted a pair of pillar boxes. At first sight they looked identical but soon I realised that they were not. One had a wider orifice for inserting letters than the other. The wider one bears the ‘logo’ of Queen Elizabeth II and its neighbour with the narrower slit bears the logo of the Queen’s father, King George VI. Apart from these differences, there were much the same.

The two pillar boxes I saw in Cambridge are not particularly old. The first post box on the British mainland was placed in Carlisle in 1853. The idea of using such receptacles for collecting mail is connected with the author Anthony Trollope (1815-1882). An informative website (https://www.postalmuseum.org/collections/highlights/letter-boxes/#) related:

“Anthony Trollope, now more famed as a novelist, was, in the 1850s working as a Surveyor’s Clerk for the Post Office. Part of his duties involved him travelling to Europe where it is probable that he saw road-side letter boxes in use in France and Belgium.He proposed the introduction of such boxes to Britain and a trial on the Channel Islands was approved. Four cast-iron pillar boxes were installed on the island of Jersey and came into use on 23 November 1852. In 1853 the trial was extended to neighbouring Guernsey. None of the first boxes used on Jersey survive. It is possible that one still in use on Guernsey together with another in our collection, originally sited in Guernsey, date from the 1853 extension to the trial.”

Before the introduction of pillar boxes:

“… there was [sic] principally two ways of posting a letter. Senders would either have to take the letter in person to a Receiving House (effectively an early Post Office) or would have to await the Bellman. The Bellman wore a uniform and walked the streets collecting letters from the public, ringing a bell to attract attention.”

Well, all that history is news to me and I might not have bothered to find out about it had I not seen the father and daughter pillar boxes standing side=by-side in Cambridge’s Market Square.

Honey for tea and death in Greece

THE SHORT-LIVED POET Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) lived outside Cambridge in the nearby village of Grantchester, where he rented a room in The Old Vicarage between 1909 and 1912. In May of 1912, Brooke was sitting in the Café des Westens in Berlin and feeling nostalgic about his life in Grantchester. He put pen to paper and composed his poem “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.” Clearly fed up with Berlin, the poet begins the final verse of his poem with:

“God! I will pack, and take a train,        

And get me to England once again!       

For England’s the one land, I know,      

Where men with Splendid Hearts may go;                

And Cambridgeshire, of all England,     

The shire for Men who Understand;      

And of that district I prefer        

The lovely hamlet Grantchester…”

The final verse ends with the famous lines:

“The lies, and truths, and pain?… oh! yet          

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?     

And is there honey still for tea?”

Inside the old pavilion at the Orchard in Grantchester

Having recently visited Grantchester, I can sympathise with Brooke’s desire to return to this charming village whose meadows run along the bank of the winding River Cam. The parish church of St Mary and St Andrew contains structures created as early as the 12th century, but most of the building dates from the 14th and 15th centuries. The west tower is mainly early 15th century. The clock on it no longer stands at ten to three, but it was stuck at that hour during the era when Brooke was in Grantchester.

The Orchard, which lies across the High Street from the church and between it and the meadows by the river, was planted in 1868. Before moving into the Old Vicarage, Brooke had lodged in a house in The Orchard. In 1897, a group of Cambridge University students asked Mrs Stevenson of Orchard House if they could enjoy tea under the blossoming trees. Thus began The Orchard Tea Gardens, now a popular haunt of students and tourists. Because of the unreliability of the English weather, a wooden pavilion was built at the end of the 19th century. In case of rain, tea drinkers could sit in the pavilion and enjoy their tea without getting soaked. Rupert Brooke was one of those, who used this place often. The Orchard’s website (www.theorchardteagarden.co.uk/history-new/) noted:

In taking tea at the Orchard, you are joining an impressive group of luminaries including Rupert Brooke (poet), Virginia Woolf (author), Maynard Keynes (economist), Bertrand Russell (philosopher), Ludwig Wittgenstein (philosopher), Alan Turing (inventor of the computer), Ernest Rutherford (split the atom), Crick and Watson (discovered DNA), Stephen Hawking (theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author), Jocelyn Bell (discovered the first pulsar) and HRH Prince Charles (future King of England). There is a list of some of the famous people who have visited in a separate page on our web site, and there are photographs of many of them on the walls of the Rupert Brooke Room.”

The Rupert Brooke Room was constructed later than the pavilion. The famous visitors included several noteworthy Indians including Jawaharlal Nehru, Salman Rushdie, and Manmohan Singh. There is a whole host of other well-known personalities who have taken tea at The Orchard including a group of Cambridge students, who achieved notoriety for their involvement in espionage for the Soviet Union: Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby.

As for Brooke’s question “And is there honey still for tea?”, I forgot to ask during our far too brief visit to The Orchard.  Brooke was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve force at the outbreak of WWI. In early 1915, he set sail with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. In late February, he developed a serious infection following an insect bite and despite the efforts of surgeons on a French hospital ship moored near the Greek island of Skyros, he died. He was buried in an olive grove on the island. In the churchyard of St Mary and St Andrew, Brooke’s name in carved on the church’s simple war memorial.

Remembering a generous lady in Westminster Abbey

CALL ME UNINFORMED but until the afternoon of the 22nd of April 2022 when I attended a service in Westminster Abbey, I had thought that Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge was named after someone called Sidney Sussex. Now, I know better.

On the 22nd, we attended choral Evensong in Westminster Abbey. The choir was that of Sidney Sussex College, and they sung well despite the not too brilliant acoustics in the huge church. After the service, a select group of us, consisting mainly of people associated with the College, moved over to a small side chapel behind and north of the High Altar: The Chapel of St Paul. When we were all crowded into the small chapel, already filled with funerary monuments, the choir of Sidney Sussex squeezed in. They sung a short mass, and then the Master of the College laid a floral wreath at the foot of the monument to Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex (c1531-1589). This ceremony, commemorating the founding of Sidney Sussex College, has been performed annually since her death.

Frances Sidney, aunt of the poet Phillip Sidney (1554-1587), was a philanthropist. She had inherited a great deal of money when her husband Thomas Radcliffe, Lord Fitzwalter, Lord Deputy of Ireland and from1557 the 3rd Earl of Sussex, died in 1583.  One of her many good deeds is recorded on her colourful stone monument in Westminster Abbey. As per tradition, the Master of Sidney Sussex read out aloud the resumé of Frances’s life as recorded on the monument. The part that is pertinent to the college is as follows:

“…By her last will and testament she instituted a divinitie lectur to be redd in this Collegiate Church and by the same her testament gave also fyve thowsande powndes towards the buildinge of a newe colledge in the Universitie of Cambridge, with sufficient yerelie revenew for the continuall maintenaunce of one Maister, X Fellowes, and XX Schollers, eyther in ye same Colledge or ells in another house in ye said Universitie already builded, comenlie [commonly] called Clare Hall…”

To put it in plainer English, on her death in 1589, she bequeathed £5,000 (worth far more than £ 1 million today) to pay for the building of a new college in the University of Cambridge and to provide an annual revenue sufficient to finance 1 Master, 10 Fellows (i.e., academic teachers) and 20 scholars. The first sentence of the quote states that a “divine lectur” (i.e., prayers) should be said annually in the Abbey. And this is what was being done as we stood assembled in the small chapel. It was a curiously moving occasion especially when the wreath was laid at her monument. Later, one of the clerics who had been present at the ceremony explained to me that not only had Frances Sidney paid for the college, which is named in her memory but also she would have had to pay for the elaborate marble and alabaster monument erected to remember her.

As for the name of the college, Sidney Sussex, this is a shortened version of its full name: The College of the Lady Frances Sidney Sussex.

Lift your eyes

IT IS TEMPTING to concentrate on the wonderful collection of exhibits in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, but you should spare some of your attention for the magnificent decoration of some of its galleries. Look up from the paintings and display cases to see superb ceiling decorations above you, and also around you when using the grand staircase. You are sure to be amazed.

The museum is housed in a neo-classical edifice initially designed by George Basevi (1794-1845), architect of London’s Grosvenor Square. After Basevi’s death, the planning of the structure was completed by Charles Robert Cockerell (1788–1863). Built to house the collection bequeathed to the University of Cambridge by Richard FitzWilliam, 7th Viscount FitzWilliam (1745-1816), the present museum was opened to the public in 1848. Over the years since then, the museum has been enlarged by adding newer buildings and now it is home to about 500,000 artefacts.

Years ago, I remember reading (I cannot remember where) a comparison of a museum in the USA designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) with another one, the Guggenheim in Manhattan, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). Both buildings are elegant but that by Mies Van der Rohe modestly allows the exhibits to grab the viewer’s attention more than the architecture, whereas the unusual design of Wright’s building competes with the artworks for the viewer’s attention. The internal decoration of the older galleries of the Fitzwilliam are sufficiently eye-catching to be able to compete with the exhibits housed in them, but somehow, they hardly do this. That is why I am asking you to take your eyes off the exhibits if only to glance briefly at the décor of the galleries,

Golden guesswork: the Scythians in Cambridge

THE SCYTHIANS ROAMED around the steppes of Central Asia from about 800 BC to about 300 BC. I write “about” because very little is known for certain about this group of people, also known as the Saka-Scythians or Saka. My interest in the Scythians, who were dependant on horse riding for their not inconsiderable exploits including ruling most of Central Asia, was aroused by discovering that they used the double-headed eagle, a symbol that fascinates me, in their handiwork. So, it was with great excitement that I visited the special exhibition of Scythian gold at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The show, “Gold of the Great Steppe”, is on until the 30th of January 2022.

The exhibition is well worth seeing. The gold and other items found in Scythian grave mounds in Kazakhstan are superb examples of sophisticated technology and fine craftsmanship and they are displayed beautifully. The labelling is clear and easy to read. However, what is very clear from what is written on these labels is that almost nothing concrete is known about the people who created the exhibits. The curators make numerous reasonable-sounding suggestions about the possible ways of life that the items suggest, but these seem to me to be mainly intelligent guesswork. The Scythians left no written records. What we know about them depends mainly on metallurgical and genetic findings, as well as a few linguistic studies. Various Ancient Greek writers have written about them, but their opinions were often biased against them. So, it is not surprising that visitors to the exhibition are left little wiser about the people who created the magnificent artefacts on display. Interspersed amongst the items found in the graves in Kazakhstan there are modern recreations of how the Scythians and their horses might have looked in life. I felt that these mock-ups were rather too speculative for my taste. That said, I was pleased to have seen the show.

A marvellous modern mosque

KINGS COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE has a superb perpendicular gothic chapel, whose construction commenced in about 1446 and took almost 100 years to complete. Its fabulously intricate fan-vaulting makes it one of the finest buildings in Cambridge, if not in all of England. Until recently, it was the one and only building in Cambridge that visitors to the city needed to see, even if they did not have time to see anything else. Although this continues to be the case, there is another building, which visitors should make time to see in addition to the chapel. Unlike the college edifice, this is not in the historic academic part of the city but in Mill Road, not far from the main railway station. Near the eastern end of this thoroughfare, which is rapidly becoming a ‘trendy’ part of Cambridge, you will come across a wonderful modern building set back from the road and separated from it by a pleasant, small garden. This structure is The Cambridge Central Mosque.

The mosque was completed in 2019 and designed by Marks Barfield Architects (London) in conjunction with Professor Keith Critchlow (1933-2020), who was Professor of Islamic Art at London’s Royal College of Art, and the garden designer Emma Clark. The designers of the mosque aimed (in the words of Abdal Hakim Murad, chairman of the Cambridge Mosque Trust) to create:

“…a brand new sacred space … to bring together something that’s very ancient and timeless with the very latest technologies.” (https://cambridgecentralmosque.org/design/)

This has been achieved very successfully. The visually spectacular deep portico, reached after walking through a pleasant garden, is supported by clusters of curved timbers, which immediately bring to mind thoughts of the masonry fan-vaulting in Kings College Chapel. These clusters continue through the entire building, creating a sense of continuity of the exterior and interior spaces. The vaulting that reminds us of the mosque’s gothic relative at Kings College also evokes purely Islamic architecture such as one finds at the Alhambra in Spain. The outside of the building is covered with brickwork in two colours, the bricks being arranged to produce patterns which are contemporary versions of a traditional Islamic design. The centre of the mosque is topped by a single dome made in matt-gold coloured metal.

The glass walls that separate the portico from the interior of the mosque reflect the mundane houses opposite the mosque (across Mill Road). I do not know whether the designers intended it, but I felt that these reflections were a way of giving the impression that the garden and the world beyond the mosque is merging with the building itself, that the religious structure was merging with its secular surroundings. Whether or not this was the designers’ intention, this mosque deserves a place in the highest echelon of great British architecture alongside Kings College Chapel. The beauty of the chapel and the mosque, separated by many hundreds of years in age, both have the effect of taking one’s breath away in amazement.