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16 June 2022

Image for the news item 'Men of Letters' on 16 Jun 2022
The Fane Room ceiling (copyright Sara Rawlinson)

The lofty barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Library’s main reading room, now known as the Fane Room, is divided into five segments: three dating from the original building of 1909, the other two from the 1930 extension. Each section contains a pair of ornate plaster initials enclosed within a cartouche, commemorating distinguished Emma worthies.

They are arranged on the ceiling thus:

                                                                             Fane Room: Entrance

                                                                            WL       (1909)        JW

                                                                            EC                            JH

                                                                            WT                          FH


                                                                             TY         (1930)       JM

                                                                             WG                         RD


Some years ago, the late Dr Frank Stubbings, College Fellow and Librarian, in the absence (as he thought) of any surviving documentation, offered the following educated guesses as to the identity of the men in question.

                     WL: William Law, theologian (1686-1761)                         JW: John Wallis, mathematician (1616-1703)

                     EC: Edmund Castell, oriental linguist (1606-1685)            JH: Jeremiah Horrox, astronomer (1618-41)

                     WT: William Temple, man of letters (1628-1699)             FH: Fenton Hort, biblical scholar (1828-1892)


                     TY: Thomas Young, scientist/polymath (1773-1829)        JM: John Martyn, botanist (1699-1768)

                      WG: William Gell, classical historian (1777-1836)            RD: Richard Dawes, linguist (1709-1766)


In fact, there is some relevant paperwork in the college archives, but although it largely confirms Dr Stubbings’ identifications, at least in respect of the original segments, it also contains one perplexing anomaly. In June 1909, as building work on the Library neared completion, the Bursar wrote to the architect, Leonard Stokes, as follows: ‘As to something for the ceiling I think monograms of the names of former members of the College whose intellectual interests have given them a name would be suitable…How many would you require?

The answer being ‘six’, the Bursar then submitted various combinations to the Master, who replied: ‘Your names really form two groups: Sir William Temple, Law and Hall are names of considerable importance in English literature; Castell, Dawes and Joshua Barnes are scholars who did something remarkable all of them in their day…Since the decay of Puritanism I suppose Sterry has had no public…and John Smith would I think have more claim; in spite of his contemporary reputation Parr I am afraid was more a blatant political pamphleteer than a scholar…Temple was no scholar though he was the cause of forwarding scholarship in others…’.

Eventually they compromised on a final sextet, which the Bursar passed to Stokes on 14 July, with instructions about the placement: ‘The three representing Science should be on one side and the three representing Literature on the other’. The ‘Science’ men were John Wallis, Jeremiah Horrox and Thomas Young; the ‘Literature’ trio were William Temple, Edmund Castell and William Law. There is, however, a glaring discrepancy between this selection and what we see today: the siting of Thomas Young’s monogram. It is certainly present on the ceiling, but in the 1930 section, and on the ‘Literature’ side, to boot.


                                                           The ‘FH’ monogram (copyright Sara Rawlinson)

The space originally designated for Young contains the initials ‘FH’, for Fenton Hort. Dr Stubbings thought the choice of Hort ‘especially fitting because the lecture-room ceiling in a small way echoed his own scheme for the Chapel’ (Hort had selected the college men commemorated in the chapel windows and on painted wall panels, later covered over). Given the evidence of the 1909 paperwork, though, the presence of ‘FH’ on the original ceiling represents an inexplicable last-minute substitution. As a theologian, Hort’s inclusion among the ‘Science’ worthies upsets the balance of the monograms, and furthermore, he had only died in 1892, far more recently than any of the other men chosen in 1909.

A possible explanation is that Young’s monogram was originally placed as intended, but removed for its own safety when the ceiling was extended, and not put back in the correct position. If the plaques ever need to be taken down for conservation, there would be an opportunity to relocate ‘TY’ among his scientific peers - although Thomas Young himself would probably not concede that he had any peers!

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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