Reginald Radcliffe Cory on the French Riviera, 1933. Cory’s generous bequest to the Botanic Garden enabled the development of the eastern section from the 1950s.
The beginning of a research project is a particularly exciting time. There is the delicious element of the unexpected, not knowing what you may discover, which paths will appear or unknown connections may emerge from your explorations and questions.
Since my project focuses on the social history of the eastern section of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden through time, understanding the timeline of people and developments seems a useful navigational point to begin. While historic people, decisions and events have influenced the development of the contemporary eastern garden, it was only after the second world-war that work began on this half of the garden, following a generous bequest from Reginald Radcliffe Cory (Trinity College). Cory is a key figure in enabling the development of the eastern garden, therefore Cory’s story is an important one. It dates back at least to the 1920s and his relationship with the first academic director of the botanic garden, Humphrey Gilbert-Carter.
The main emphasis of my project will be on key people and developments from the 1950s. For example, since 1951 there have been six directors and acting directors – John Gilmour, Max Walters, Donald Pigott, Thomas ap Rees, John Parker and the current acting director and curator, Tim Upson. The newly-appointed director, Beverley Glover, takes up her post in July 2013. Each director has overseen a range of developments in the garden; each has been influenced by prevailing ideas about the environment, biology and horticulture.
A serendipitous opportunity to attend a SHARE Museums East training day at the Cambridgeshire Archives (Shire Hall) and the Cambridgeshire Collection (Central Library) offers some additional fascinating resources to explore. It is hoped that information from these local archives will add further colour and texture to the botanic garden history.
My project is about King Arthur’s Table. I described this in a previous post. As I’ve explained on my own blog, it stems from my PhD research into a 14th-century manuscript, The Equatorie of the Planetis.
Yesterday I was in London, looking in the archives of the Royal Institution for information about how and why King Arthur’s Table was built according to the instructions in the manuscript. I didn’t find any direct evidence, but I discovered plenty about its creator, Derek Price, and his relationship with Lawrence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish Laboratory where KAT was made.
I was struck by how many of my research projects have included a strong biographical element. Maybe it’s just the way my research interests push me, or perhaps there’s always a biographical aspect to every history. Either way, I do think personal stories add some human interest.
Price’s story is an intriguing one. I haven’t got to the bottom of it, but it seems that for him, coming to Cambridge was a new beginning. His background was far from prosperous: his father was a tailor and his mother a singer, and he studied for his first degree and doctorate at South West Essex Technical College (part of the University of London). After taking his doctorate in physics he moved to teach applied mathemetics at the then University of Malaya in Singapore. This was in 1947, the same year he got married. But in 1950 something changed. He decided to change subjects from mathematics and physics to the history of science, and began to make enquiries about studying or working at Cambridge. This was to lead to his second PhD, for which he researched the Equatorie manuscript he had discovered in the library at Peterhouse.
The archives show that several people in Cambridge were curious, even suspicious, about his reasons for leaving Malaya. There are hints that he did not fit easily into life in Cambridge. It’s tempting to suppose that this may have had something to do with his social or racial (Jewish) background, but there is no clear evidence on that point. Either way, it is fascinating to see how, when he decided to make a new start in his career, he was prepared to work incredibly hard to make it happen.
As I’ve also come to Cambridge a little later in life, it’s something I can identify with. And of course it’s been said that a biographer must be able to identify with their subject to some extent. Is this the beginning of a beautiful biographical relationship? We’ll see.
The first task of my research project was to identify the plaster casts in the collection of the Museum of Classical Archaeology that were acquired in the nineteenth century, which was possible through Charles Waldstein’s Catalogue of Casts in the Museum of Classical Archaeology (London: Macmillan, 1889). Waldstein was the Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and although the Museum of Classical Archaeology had become a distinct entity in 1884, it remained under the jurisdiction of its first home.
I then set about isolating the plastercasts than had been manufactured by Brucciani, a formatore from Lucca who’s firm supplied the Department of Science and Art and the British Museum fromthe mid-nineteenth century onwards. Domenico Brucciani had died in 1880, but the use of his name and his moulds continued until the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired them in 1921 for the Department for the Sale of Casts, which operated until 1951. These particular casts are of interest because they represent a canon of objects used to transmit knowledge across the disciplines of fine art, industrial design and classical archaeology. They were an important part of nineteenth-century material culture, valued for their mobility, economy and fidelity.
I am now pursuing two parallel threads of research: sourcing representations of these particular casts from the Royal Academy Schools and the national network of Schools of Art and building an understanding of the position of art education in Cambridge through the establishment of the Cambridge School of Art in 1858. The culture of the school was shaped by the inaugural address delivered by John Ruskin, published in the same year. The school was superintended by the Department of Science and Art and presumably also supplied with a standardised teaching collection of plaster casts. Ruskin was openly critical of this centralised, codified system, which makes his presence and influence in Cambridge remarkable. The artist Richard Redgrave was also present at the inaugural soirée, in the capacity of Inspector General of the Department. He was responsible for the infamous ‘National Course of Instruction’, a rigorous curriculum of 23 separate stages that most students failed to complete. He expressed the hope that ‘the authorities would place at the disposal of the students that admirable collection which the University possessed at the Fitzwilliam Museum (applause), which would indeed afford facilities in the progress of Art’