Archive | February 2013

Who? Sir Lawrence Bragg

As you may have noticed, we’re all posting on the theme of who? this month.  In my last post I raised some biographical issues and introduced my main subject, Derek de Solla Price.  So this time I’ll write about a significant supporting character: Sir Lawrence Bragg.

Lawrence BraggBragg is justly famous in the history of science: he remains the youngest ever winner of a Nobel Prize (at the age of 25 he shared the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics with his father William Henry Bragg, for their work developing X-ray crystallography).  The previous year he had been elected to a fellowship and lectureship at Trinity College, Cambridge.  During the First World War he developed techniques of sound ranging on the Western Front, and he succeeded Ernest Rutherford as Professor of Physics at Manchester University in 1919.  In 1937 he was appointed Director of the National Physical Laboratory, but had not even left Manchester when Rutherford, who had moved to Cambridge, died.  Against some misgivings from his father, Bragg replaced Rutherford again, this time as Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics.

It is as Cavendish Professor that he interests us.  J. A. Ratcliffe, head of the radio ionosphere research group at the Cavendish and a trusted lieutenant of Bragg, had this to say about him:

A Cavendish Professor plays at least four parts.  He must be a scientist, run the laboratory, uphold the interests of the department in the University, and act as an Elder Statesman of Science outside.  Bragg was pre-eminently the active scientist, and he ran the laboratory extremely well.  I do not think he played the part that some others have done in the University itself, and I am not sure that his part as Elder Statesman was quite as large as theirs would have been.  I found him extremely helpful and kindly, and above all things a real gentleman in every way.  He was quite open and straight-forward and ready to help anyone who had the good of the laboratory at heart.  I think there was an extremely good feeling in the laboratory during his time and all liked him.

That’s a pretty glowing report for a boss to receive, and it is clear that Bragg excelled as a manager.  As soon as he came to the Cavendish he was thinking strategically about how it needed to change, and he explained his ideas in 1942 in Physicists After the War: Britain produced just one good physicist per million population and the demand for physicists exceeded supply.  In future, scientists would need to pay more attention to the technical applications of their research.  His ideas in this field influenced Derek Price, who would go on to develop the field of scientometrics – the statistical study of science.

He felt his role as a manager was to create the conditions for discoveries to take place.  The best conditions for “brain-waves”, he felt, involved collaboration, discussion, and cross-fertilisation of ideas.  They did not arise in large, amorphous organisations, or come to isolated individuals.  So he restructured the Cavendish into research units, of 6-12 scientists, with a few assistants, one or two mechanics, and a workshop.  (It was apparently very important that the workshop be well supplied with junk, so that new ideas could be tried out quickly and at low cost.)  The rapid expansion of the Cavendish (from about 40 researchers before WWII to 160 by 1948) meant that some research groups had to be sub-divided.  Nevertheless, he promoted contact between groups, and encouraged senior researchers to continue teaching undergraduates, hoping that this would stimulate the flow of ideas.

The fact that each group had its own workshop (as well as a central workshop for the largest and most specialised tasks) meant that there was some duplication of functions.  Bragg felt that it was better to have extra machines and occasional underemployment of technicians, than to delay research because the workshops were too busy.

It was in one of these workshops that King Arthur’s Table was built.  Derek Price had come to the Cavendish to put the archives in order and catalogue the Laboratory’s collection of antique scientific instruments.  Bragg supported Price’s application for an ICI Fellowship to fund his PhD studies on medieval astronomical instruments, and it seems likely that Bragg took advantage of the workshops’ flexibility to commission them to produce a six-foot wood and brass equatorium – rather different from their usual work in cutting-edge physics!

These kinds of jobs were done without paperwork, so I am unlikely to be able to discover the precise circumstances of the equatorium’s production.  But I am glad to have discovered more about a major contributor to the success of the Cavendish Laboratory, and a key figure in twentieth-century science.

Who? Botanic Garden breaks new ground

John Gilmour, Director of Cambridge University Botanic Garden between 1951-1973. Image: CUBG

John Gilmour, Director of Cambridge University Botanic Garden 1951-1973.  Image: CUBG

Innumerable people have been involved in development of the eastern section of Cambridge University Botanic Garden in different capacities since 1951. One key figure in the physical and ideological shaping of this new section of the Garden was the post-WWII director, John Gilmour.

Dr John Scott Lennox Gilmour (1906 – 1986) became Director of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden at an exciting time in the Garden’s history. After the Second World War, Britain experienced social change, increasing optimism after years of wartime austerity and an interest in leisure pursuits. This was matched by John Gilmour’s enthusiasm, energy and botanical scholarship. At the same time, the unlocking of vital funds enabled the new eastern half of the garden to expand and flourish. John Gilmore was a Cambridge graduate (Clare College), having swapped medicine for botany. After graduating he became Curator of the Herbarium and Botanical Museum in the Cambridge University Botany School in 1929, before his appointment, at the age of 25, as Assistant-Director of Kew Gardens. He moved to RHS Wisley in 1946 as Director, before returning to Cambridge, in 1951, as Director.

According to the veteran horticulturalist and broadcaster, Bill Sowerbutts, speaking to Roy Plomley on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1973, after WWII, once food had again became fairly easy to obtain, British gardeners ‘revolted’ against growing vegetables, revelling in flowers instead. This turning away from utility to sometime more creative and exploratory in British domestic gardens echoed what was happening in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Until 1951, the 20-acres in the eastern section of the Garden, originally purchased in 1831, had been leased as allotments for vegetables and fruit. Thanks to Reginald Cory’s generous 1930s bequest, John Gilmour and his superintendent, Bob Younger, were able to begin the transformation of the eastern half of the garden. They retained the Gardenesque (garden-like) style of the earlier and well-established mid-19th century western garden. The layout and design of the eastern garden’s new paths and plantings have strongly influenced the contemporary eastern garden that is visible to visitors today. Here plantings are organized as plant communities, rather than in family groupings.

During Gilmour’s directorship numerous major garden undertakings were begun. These include the construction of a Rock Garden (1954 – 1958) with a ‘doline’ (sunken) feature; a Scented Garden, developed for blind visitors in 1955, with assistance from the local Rotary Club; The Cory Laboratory and experimental glasshouses in 1957 and the Chronological Bed in 1958. This latter innovative planting presents a living timeline of the introduction of plants into the British Isles from across the globe since the 1500s.

John Gilmour’s personal passion for British wild flowers was instrumental in the development of an ecological limestone mound with British wild plants from the Eastern region (1962). In 1967, renowned British designer and silversmith, David Mellor, was commissioned to design a focal point at the eastern end of the Main Walk. The resulting Lily Fountain consists of seven large giant bronze water lily leaves each with a central column of water. It continues to be a popular feature in the Garden.

John Gilmour retired as Director in 1973, having bequeathed the Botanic Garden a considerable enduring legacy of botanical developments and landscaping designs.

Who? A Cast of Characters…

A short introduction to three of the principal agents in my research at the Museum of Classical Archaeology:

Domenico Brucciani (1815-1880)

Brucciani, a formatore from Lucca, was manufacturing and selling plaster casts in London from 1829. Having supplied the Government Schools of Design, British Museum and South Kensington Museum with casts, he opened a showroom near Covent Garden called the Galleria delle Belle Arti in 1864. His obituary in The Builder offered the following endorsement: ‘Although chiefly a plasterman in calling, he was an artist at heart’. After his death, the business was purchased by a fellow Italian, Joseph Caproni (1846-1900), who retained the name D. Brucciani & Co. It is this incarnation of the business that supplied many of the plaster casts to the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Museum of Classical Archaeology.

Sidney Colvin (1845-1927)

Colvin usefully bridges the gap between classics and fine art for the purposes of this project. He studied classics at Trinity College and became a fellow in 1868. Having established a reputation for writing on the fine arts in the periodical press, he held the position of Slade professor of fine art in Cambridge between 1873 and 1885. During this time, he also took the post of director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and was instrumental in the establishment of the Museum of Classical Archaeology. Colvin’s views on art were very much informed by John Ruskin, to whom we now turn… 

John Ruskin (1819-1900) 

Ruskin perhaps remains the most well known commentator on the visual arts in the nineteenth century. He is of interest to this project for his role in the inauguration of the Cambridge School of Art in 1858, at which he delivered an important address on art education that was subsequently published as a pamphlet and much discussed in the periodical press. His central argument was that Schools of Art should teach operatives and artisans to see, rather than blindly copying their way to empty technical facility. Ruskin’s connection to Cambridge continued through visiting lectures and a donation of 25 drawings by Turner to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1861.


Who? The Makers of the School Samplers

Mary Derow (b.1713), Jane Brady (1773-1832), Hannah Bowtell, Mary Culley, Catherine Cooks, Ann Calton (b.1820), Jane Reeder Cole and Mary Ann Tipper were born in different parts of the country and at different times during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but they all had something in common: sampler making.

Ann Calton, Mary Derow, Mary Culley and Jane Reeder Cole came from struggling families who could not support their daughters. I have yet to find out the backgrounds of the other girls. Needlework skills at least provided a way for the girls to better their position with the aim of finding employment. The school mistresses, who also seemed to be capable embroiderers, most likely provided the girls with a model sampler which their pupils copied from. But the girls would not have had the opportunity to be educated and to develop employable skills without the financial aid of patrons and subscribers who supported the education of poor children.

Images of the British Empire on Nineteenth-Century Medals


Seringapatam Medal


The Fitzwilliam Museum holds over four hundred medals acquired by an investment banker named Lester Watson (1889-1959). These fascinating objects can now be displayed thanks to the generosity of the Watson family and Cambridge in America. Many relate to British imperial expansion across the globe during the nineteenth century. They cover conflicts in the Gold Coast, Egypt, Southern Africa, Afghanistan, India, Burma, Java, Borneo and China.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of these objects is their use of iconography. Some bear stylised depictions of colonial warfare and panoramic views of conquered landscapes. Others display allegorical scenes featuring classical figures and heraldic animals. The image above, for example, is the famous Seringapatam Medal. It commemorates the defeat of Tipu Sultan, one of the East India Company’s foremost military adversaries, in 1799. A British lion can be seen subduing an Indian tiger below a standard bearing the words ‘The Lion of God is Conqueror’.

The Lester Watson Collection provides a unique opportunity to examine the British Empire, its conflicts and its self-image. The Fitzwilliam will host several talks on this theme over the coming months. A selection of some of the most thought-provoking medals will also be on a display in the Glaisher Gallery later this year.

University of Cambridge Museums

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