Reading Euclid at Eton

“All boys should have a competent knowledge of Mathematics before leaving school.”

Edward Hawtrey, Head Master of Eton, 1851

Eton College Library and Archive were recently approached by the Reading Euclid research project (based at the University of Oxford) for material relating to the role of the mathematician Euclid in the curriculum at Eton between 1500 and 1800.  Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, written in Alexandria around 300BCE, was a crucial text in the mathematical culture of early modern Britain, read by almost everyone with an interest in geometry.  It would be reasonable to expect Euclid to have been read and taught at Eton College.

It was with some regret, therefore, that we had to disclose that – unlike other historic schools like Westminster College and Christ’s Hospital – Eton only began to offer mathematics in the 1820s, and did not make maths compulsory until 1894.  Until then the curriculum was almost entirely focused on classical texts, with other subjects like maths and modern languages being ‘extras’ for which boys’ parents would pay additional fees.

Whilst we have very little evidence of early modern students at Eton reading Euclid, we know that the picture was very different for the academic community around the college.  Sir Henry Savile (1549-1622) was a mathematician and classical scholar as well as Provost of Eton from 1595.  He was a key figure in the study of mathematics in England, both publishing on Euclid and endowing two professorships at Oxford University in geometry and astronomy.  William Oughtred (c.1575-1660) was born at Eton, the son of a writing master, and went on to publish a series of works which helped to promote the study of geometry amongst the English gentry.

Eton College Library holds early modern copies of Euclid and Oughtred, including the six books displayed below.  These books are included in the Seeing Euclid networked exhibition which has been curated by the Reading Euclid project from libraries across Britain and Ireland.

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Fb.7.3. Euclid, Eukleidou ton pente kai deka stoicheion, ek ton tou theonos synodion to proton (Strasbourg, 1564). This copy has clearly been well used. It is rather dirty, but also bears annotations, some of which appear to be entirely unrelated to Euclid! The title page bears a line from the Christian hymn, the Te Deum (‘Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father’) and individual letters perhaps meant as calligraphic exercises. There are lists and geometric diagrams in the margins throughout the text. And the verso of the title page bears the ownership inscription of William Tonstall dated 1631. This copy was given to Eton in 1751 by a Fellow of the College, John Reynolds (1671-1758).

Fa.4.6. Euclid, Eukleidou stoicheion biblia 13 (London, 1620). This copy belonged to two seventeenth-century Etonians: Richard Herbert, second Baron Herbert of Cherbury (1600?-1655) and his friend William Browne. The inscription indicates that Herbert gave the book to Browne in 1623 whilst they were both at Eton. The volume later belonged to John Free (dated 1738) and Rowland Ingram, reaching Eton in 1962.

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Fa4.4. Euclid, Eukleidou stoicheion bibl. 15 ek ton theonos synousion (Basel, 1533). A copy of Euclid’s works which was in Eton College Library in the early seventeenth century. It has a typical ‘Eton binding’ of the period, with a large blind-stamped centrepiece of the College arms, broad fillet border, and the traces of clasps and a plate for a chain which were later removed. The title-page verso bears the engraved armorial bookplate of the College.

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Ib1.1.51. Eton’s copy of Oughtred’s ‘The circles of proportion and the horizontal instrument’ (London, 1633) bears intriguing signs of its mathematical use in the seventeenth century. It is bound in a contemporary limp parchment with two other mathematical treatise of the period, and its front board bears a rosette which has clearly been inscribed with a set of compasses. A user has used the front flyleaf to inscribe a series of sums and drawn two architectural cornices with circles and rules marking out their proportions, demonstrating the importance of mathematically determined harmony in classical architecture. This copy arrived in Eton in 1909 as a gift.

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Gb.7.25 and Gb.4.23: Two further copies of works by ‘Willelmo Oughtred Ætonensi’, with an engraved portrait of Oughtred and woodcut geometric diagrams.

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian

Orwell at Eton

In the summer of 1917 Eric Arthur Blair signed the entrance book for Eton College. The volume is just one of the treasures on display in Eton College Library to mark the 101st anniversary since Blair – now better known as George Orwell – crossed School Yard for the first time as a King’s

Eton College entrance book

Eton College entrance book for 1917, with Eric Blair’s signature

The display was assembled to complement the Orwell101 school conference and the unveiling of the bust of George Orwell in School Library. While Orwell probably never laid eyes on the inside of College Library himself, on 3 May this year his son, grandson and great-grandson all came to see the display that covers Orwell’s life from his Eton days to his journalism and writing career.

Starting with a mark-book, where we find Blair coming second to bottom in Classics (a subject you feel he would have happily placed in Room 101), it moves on to records of a Wall Game in his final year where Blair was one of a few in the game’s history to score a goal.

College mark-book for 1917

College mark-book for 1917 showing Eric Blair second from the bottom of the class

Further highlights of the display include items relating to Orwell’s investigative journalism, among them first editions of The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and examples of his literary journalism which cover a broad range of subjects. There are also personal letters from Orwell and his wife Eileen, written while they were in Marrakesh and touching on Orwell’s ill health that he would suffer from for the rest of his life.

Orwell's early essays displayed in College Library

Orwell’s early essays displayed in College Library

Finally, the better-known role of Orwell the novelist is presented through multiple editions of his familiar works of Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1949), including a number of foreign translations, as well as his lesser-known novels such as Coming Up for Air.

Throughout the display, Orwell’s popularity and impact can also be seen, for example through the editions of Down and Out in Paris and London and The Lion and the Unicorn that Alun Lewis and Sidney Keyes respectively took with them to the First World War.

His academic reputation at Eton was somewhat mixed, but his reputation as a writer is never in doubt. After the publication of Animal Farm his Eton tutor, A.F. Gow, asked Orwell for a copy of the book. Orwell duly obliged, but rather than sign the copy ‘Eric Blair’, as Gow would have known him, he signed it ‘Geo. Orwell’ and left his Eton days behind.

College Library with Orwell101 banners

The Orwell101 display in College Library

By Ceri Sugg, Project Archivist

The display will be on show to visitors to College Library on the Fourth of June. Orwell’s time at Eton is also the subject of an article by our Archives Assistant Georgina Robinson in the Collections Journal.  Please contact us to request a copy of the Journal.

 

A Spring wreath

To celebrate the long-awaited arrival of Spring, we have woven together some objects from the collections in a wreath for Flora, goddess of the season.  We include some prints by the Suffolk artist J.G. Lubbock.  Here’s to the warmer weather!

Vespucci’s Odyssey: humanism and exploration

The wanderings of Odysseus on his return from the Trojan Wars to Ithaca have served as an archetype for more than two millennia of narratives about travel in western culture. Traditionally ascribed to the blind poet Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey are the culmination of an oral tradition dating back to the Mycenaean age, handed down and developed for performance by nameless poets over five or more centuries before reaching their present form around 675-725 BCE. The poems were probably put into writing by the mid-6th century BCE, and the earliest surviving manuscripts are papyri from the 3rd century BCE, when Alexandrian scholars produced a relatively stable text which was copied by scribes and spread across the Hellenistic world. About 300 medieval Greek manuscripts of Homer survive from the 9th to 15th centuries, but in western Europe, Homer’s poems were transmitted through Latin abridgements until the revival of Greek learning in the Renaissance, when the influx of Byzantine refugees after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 brought scholars and the writings of Greek authors to the west.

A 15th-century manuscript of the Odyssey in College Library bears witness to this Greek diaspora. Given to Eton in 1954 by the book collector and Old Etonian John Hely-Hutchinson, it is in a binding typical of books from the library of San Marco in Florence, and the scribe has been identified as Joannes Skoutariotes of Thessaly, who was active from 1442 to 1494. Written on fine vellum, the manuscript is mostly undecorated apart from the small illuminated initials and the very fine border of white vines attributed to the miniaturist Filippo de Matteo Torelli, with putti and other creatures peeping out of the vines and vignettes showing scenes from the poem of Penelope weaving and Odysseus coming ashore. A charming feature of the border is the way it incorporates a marginal correction by the scribe, about two thirds of the way down the right-hand margin.

Homer's Odyssey, 15th century Italian manuscript (Eton MS 261)

Homer’s Odyssey, 15th century Italian manuscript (Eton MS 261)

An inscription on the final leaf of the manuscript, erased and barely legible, identifies the owner: ‘Liber Georgii Antonii Vespucci’ [the book of Giorgio Antonio Vespucci]. The youngest of three brothers of the Vespucci family of Florence, Giorgio Antonio Vespucci studied with the notary and humanist scholar Filippo de Ser Ugolino Pieruzzi, who inspired in him an interest in voyages, astronomy and discussions of the shape of the earth. He became a Dominican friar, scribe and teacher of classics in humanist circles, numbering among his friends the Neoplatonist philosopher and astrologer Marsilio Ficino and the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola. In addition to copying books for the family library and for others, Giorgio Antonio Vespucci formed a notable collection of manuscript and printed books in Latin and Greek, estimated at between 150 and 200 volumes, and after his death the majority of these were bequeathed to the Dominican convent of San Marco.

As an educator, Vespucci taught young men from the best families in Florence and foreigners drawn to the city by the lure of humanism, including Greek and Byzantine exiles. Among those to whom he imparted his knowledge was his nephew Amerigo, who was intended for a commercial career which eventually led him to join between two and four voyages of exploration to the Americas in the service of Spain and Portugal around 1500. The exact number is disputed, as is Vespucci’s authorship of letters describing the voyages, which may be fabrications by others based in part on genuine letters. However, the publication and widespread circulation of the letters under a Latinised form of his name, Americus Vespucius, is thought to have inspired the cartographer Martin Waldeseemüller to coin the name ‘America’ in his 1507 world map, the Universalis Cosmographia, the first to show the Americas as a separate continent from Asia.

Domenico_ghirlandaio,_Cappella_vespucci

Domenico Ghirlandaio, ‘Madonna della Misericordia and Deposition’, fresco in the Vespucci Chapel, church of Ognissanti, Florence, 1473-1476. The twelve kneeling figures under the Virgin’s robe are members of the Vespucci family; however, scholars are not in agreement in the possible identifications of the individuals. Image from the Web Gallery of Art via WikiCommons

A composition book from Amerigo’s time at his uncle’s school survives in the Biblioteca Riccardiana in Florence. In it, he set down ideas and discussions on a variety of subjects and translated them into Latin. They travelled together to Rome, and Giorgio Antonio seems to have inspired his nephew with a love of travel and belief in its benefits. One passage reads: ‘Going back and forth to many distant lands, where by talking and trading one can learn many things, not a few merchants have become wise and learned … Moving about and making enquiries concerning the world, whose limits we have not yet completely ascertained, they can furnish valuable advice …’. It is tempting to believe that perhaps Amerigo Vespucci pored over his uncle’s manuscript of the Odyssey, or at least listened to tales from the poem.

By Stephie Coane, Deputy Curator of Modern Collections

Giorgio Antonio Vespucci’s copy of the Odyssey is on display in the current exhibition in College Library’s Tower Gallery, ‘VOYAGES: a journey in books’. The exhibition is open 24 November 2017 – 30 April 2018, Monday to Friday, 9.30-1 and 2-5 by appointment. To book, please contact us at collections@etoncollege.org.uk or 01753 370590.

A Collections Christmas Cracker

Welcome to our final blog of the Michaelmas half!  We’ve chosen twelve of our favourite seasonal objects from the Collections, for your festive enjoyment.  Merry Christmas!

A distant prospect of Eton: or, on leaving presents

The poet Thomas Gray, most celebrated for his Elegy written in a country churchyard (1751), attended Eton College from 1725 until 1735, during which time he formed the self-styled ‘quadruple alliance’ with Thomas Ashton (1716–1775), Horace Walpole (1717–1797), and Richard West (1716–1742). Gray went on from Eton to become a scholar at Cambridge, but it was his acquaintance with Walpole (with whom he went on a Grand Tour of Europe in 1738) that helped to popularise his work. The Elegy was published with Walpole’s help in 1751, and Odes by Mr. Gray was printed at Walpole’s own Strawberry Hill Press, near Twickenham, six years later.

Gray was to leave a more personal legacy at Eton. During the nineteenth century, ‘leaving books’ were given by masters to boys upon their departure from Eton. Lavishly decorated volumes of Gray’s Poems were presented as leaving books, a practice which continues to this day. College Library has many examples of these gifts, including the leaving books of former Provost M. R. James (1862-1936) and former Assistant Master Hugh Macnaghten (1862-1929). Some leaving books were richly adorned with gilt edges and vellum bindings, and had bindings gold-stamped with the Eton coat of arms. The binding of a leaving book presented to the 6th Earl of Dartmouth, William Heneage Legge (1851-1936), is not only grandly embellished with gold decoration but also has a fore-edge painting which, when viewed from the right angle, beautifully depicts Eton College and Windsor Castle.

College Library holds many fine examples of Gray’s works of verse, and books from his own library. Gray’s personal copy of Juvenal dates from his schooldays at Eton, and contains an inscription reading: “E. libris Thomas Gray Schol: Eton: alum: 1733”.

Ownership inscription by Thomas Gray

Inscription by Thomas Gray, as an alumnus of Eton College, in his copy of Juvenal’s poetry (ECL Iaa2.5.6).

The first of Gray’s works to appear in print was his Ode on a distant prospect of Eton College. It is generally considered to be the reflections of a disillusioned adult returning to his schooldays, and it captures the magnificent scenery that surrounds Eton College. One of the more unusual items in this Gray collection is an album of cross-stitch of the Ode, vibrantly sewn in purple and green thread. The title-page depicts Eton’s motto and coat of arms.

Gray’s time at Eton is strongly reflected within his ode, and, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was immortalised for subsequent students within leaving books, irrevocably linking Thomas Gray to Eton.

By Eleanor Wale, Project Cataloguer

 

Aiming at the highest peaks: Wilfred Thesiger rewrites his first book

The explorer Wilfred Thesiger never intended to write a book about his travels, but in 1956 he was persuaded, and he began work on Arabian Sands.  Thesiger’s old Eton friend Valentine ffrench Blake commented on the first draft, calling certain paragraphs ‘clumsy’ or simply ‘no good’.  Thesiger was grateful for his friend’s advice and during the next three years the work was subjected to constant revision and proofing.

However, the meticulous revisions of the work took their toll and Thesiger became disillusioned with the whole thing.  Thesiger’s literary agent Graham Watson of Curtis Brown had to persuade him not to throw in the towel, writing in a telegram that ‘those who aim at the highest peaks must be judged by the highest standards’.  Watson was sympathetic but stern, insisting Thesiger labour through a steady working day even if redrafting was ‘darned discouraging work’ — good advice for any writer.

The words had the desired effect and Thesiger went on to complete Arabian Sands and a further eleven books.  Thesiger maintained that Arabian Sands was his finest work.

By Ceri Brough, Project Archivist