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

Transformative conservation: ‘The Lamentation’

As the newly appointed Conservation Steward, I’ve been working over the past nine months to improve how we care for the objects in the College Collections, commissioning specialists to perform conservation treatments and carrying out preventive care as well as in-house conservation treatments.

Recently we commissioned a particularly interesting treatment on a painting called The Lamentation by Pietro Testa–a 17th century oil on canvas. It hangs over the altar of the Our Lady of Sorrows Chapel, located on Eton Court Road in Eton. The chapel was commissioned between 1905 and 1915 by Old Etonian Lord Braye, who wanted a Roman Catholic Chapel built for the use of the Roman Catholic students of the school and the parishioners of Eton and Datchet. In recent years this building was acquired by Eton College.

The Lamentation before treatment

‘The Lamentation’ before treatment

The Lamentation is significant in size (two metres long by one metre high) and holds a prominent place within the chapel. In 2014 an initial condition assessment of The Lamentation was undertaken by the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge. They ascertained that the original canvas was typical of the early 17th century, but that it had undergone relining onto a secondary canvas in the 19th century. The paint layers seemed stable but the varnish was extremely discoloured, taking on an orange-brown tone that rendered the painting almost unreadable. In addition it was noted that there were many areas of retouching, probably from previous treatments, which were also extremely discoloured and disfiguring.

The conclusions from the assessment were that a full cleaning of the painting should be undertaken, including total removal of the varnish, removal of the overpaint in retouched areas and consolidation of any flaking paint layers. Finally, areas where paint had been lost would be filled and retouched, and a new varnish added for protection. Thanks to a generous donation, we were able to fund the treatment and in 2016 the painting was sent to the Hamilton Kerr Institute to be conserved.

It has now been almost a year since it left Eton and it has proved itself to be one of the most transformative conservation treatments ever undertaken at Hamilton Kerr. During the varnish removal it emerged that there were many layers of decayed varnish with dirt sandwiched between them, explaining why the painting was so dark and the subjects almost completely obscured. What conservators found under these layers were the bright and clear tones of the original 17th-century paint, which had been unseen for years. The painting is now in its final stage of conservation, being retouched and awaiting its new varnish layer. It is expected to be returned to us in early May.

The Lamentation halfway

Halfway through treatment

This project has been extremely rewarding in many ways, including the forging of new relationships with external conservators and giving conservation students the chance to work on and research a significant artwork. It will bring an artist’s original vision back to life and share it with the parishioners of Our Lady of Sorrows and the wider Eton community: an exciting example of the Collections team’s work to care for and preserve the collections for the benefit of present and future generations.

By Aimee Sims, Conservation Steward

Hodgkin at Eton

Venice Evening

Venice Evening, by Howard Hodgkin (1995). Courtesy artist’s estate and Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

On 9 March 2017, the artist Howard Hodgkin died in a London hospital. One of the most significant and influential painters of his generation, Hodgkin is also the most celebrated of the many distinguished Old Etonian artists. His first retrospective, curated by Nicholas Serota, was held at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in 1976. In 1984, he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale and in the following year won the Turner Prize. He was knighted in 1992 and made a Companion of Honour in 2003.

Hodgkin’s connection to Eton is recognised by the display of two prints, Venice Evening and Venice Night, from the Venetian Views series (1995), each almost two metres wide, which hang in the foyer of the Farrer Theatre. However, he was only a pupil at Eton for one academic year, before his repeated running away led the school to insist he attend sessions with a therapist. He had lived in America as a young child and later claimed that he successfully persuaded the therapist to recommend that he return to the States instead of beginning a second year at Eton. But despite being deeply unhappy as a schoolboy, later in life Hodgkin fondly recalled the time he spent in the Drawing Schools with the then Drawing Master, Wilfred Blunt. He admired Blunt’s willingness to offer a clear verdict on the merits of a work, a quality he feared was being lost, and claimed to have learnt something of how to live as an outsider from Blunt. He held particularly vivid memories of Blunt’s eclectic collection of objects displayed within a glass cabinet in the Drawing Schools. These assorted items were intended for boys to draw or paint from and Hodgkin specifically recalled among them an African sculpture of a dog with an erect penis.

Venice Night~hi

Venice Night, by Howard Hodgkin (1995). Courtesy artist’s estate and Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

Over half a century after his single year as a pupil of Eton, Hodgkin returned for a fleeting visit. In 2002 he was asked to open a new extension to the Drawing Schools and to view his two prints, newly installed in the Farrer Theatre. Current Drawing Master, Ian Burke, remembers meeting Hodgkin during this visit:

He was obviously a very intelligent and slightly detached man, who did not comment on any of the work on display. He seemed relatively pleased that the two prints in the Farrer Theatre had been purchased by his old school.

In his speech, when declaring the new section of the Drawing Schools open, he thanked Eton and the past Drawing Master Wilfred Blunt for encouraging his enthusiasm for painting and art in general. He described Blunt as inspiring and very encouraging to a boy who much preferred painting to games.

The prints can still be viewed in the foyer of the Farrer Theatre at Eton.

By Philippa Martin, Keeper of Fine & Decorative Arts

Meet explorers, Etonians, and pharaohs: Eton’s three museums now open on Sundays

As of last month, all three of Eton College’s museums are now open to the public on Sunday afternoons, from 2.30pm to 5.00pm. Everyone is welcome, there’s no charge for entry, and no need to book.

Over 16,000 specimens can be viewed in Berkshire’s only dedicated Natural History Museum, with unique exhibits including a rare surviving page from Charles Darwin’s manuscripts of On the Origin of Species, and material relating to famous botanist and Old Etonian Sir Joseph Banks, who sailed on the HMB Endeavour with Captain Cook.

nhm-image-9

The Museum of Antiquities, housed in the new, purpose built Jafar Gallery, presents rare archaeological treasures, ranging from Ancient Egypt to discoveries from the Thames, including a coffin depicting the deified pharaoh Thutmosis III, classical pottery and Palaeolithic flint hand tools.

Housed in the undercroft below College Hall in the historic centre of the college, the Museum of Eton Life displays the history and traditions of life at the school from 1440 to today.musical-jug-1small

The Natural History Museum and the Museum of Antiquities are on South Meadow Lane, SL4 6EW. The Museum of Eton Life is along Baldwin’s Shore, SL4 6DW. The nearest public car park is South Meadow, Meadow Lane, SL4 6BS. All three museums are a fifteen minute walk from Windsor & Eton Riverside station, and a twenty minute walk from Windsor & Eton Central. From Slough Station, take bus number 60 towards Eton.

Please contact us in advance (Monday-Friday, 9-5) if you have particular access requirements. See details on our contacts page.

A piece of finger and spine

ecr_39-45Certificate of delivery of relics, ECR 39/45bridlingtonSeal of the Priory of Bridlington

When Henry VI established Eton College, he wanted it to be a place of importance. To that end, he granted a vast amount of land and a number of privileges and rights, some not held by anywhere else in England, such as the right to grant Indulgences. In addition, he gave Eton a large collection of holy relics, intending College Chapel to become a place of pilgrimage.

Inventories drawn up over the years describe these relics and the amazing mounts created for them. In addition to the ubiquitous Thorn and piece of the True Cross, there were some more unusual items. One of the first items to be gifted by Henry was a piece of the finger and spine of St John of Bridlington.

Born in 1320 in Yorkshire, St John was commended for the integrity of his life, his scholarship, and his quiet generosity. Recognised as a saint by the Pope in 1401, he would be the last English saint to be canonised before the Reformation. After his death, tales of miracles attributed to him spread throughout the country. Henry V attributed his victory at Agincourt to the intercession of St John of Bridlington and made a number of pilgrimages to the priory there. He was therefore a popular saint for the Lancastrians, and an eminently suitable one for Henry VI’s enterprise.

Henry VI took possession of the relics on 26 June 1445 and gifted them to Eton. An elaborate reliquary of sliver and gilt was built to house them.

The cult of St John of Bridlington was short-lived, and as with many local saints his popularity faded over the years and today he is little known. Under Edward VI, Eton was forced to submit to the ecclesiastical changes being introduced – the images surrounding the altar were pulled down, and the altar frontals sold. After 1551, the Feast of the Relics was no longer celebrated, and the ornamental reliquaries were surrendered.

By Eleanor Hoare, College Archivist

A ‘lost’ Christmas carol

carol
Christmas carol in COLL EST HL 01

Written within a book of accounts kept by Richard Rowden, receiver of the rents for the college at Hanging Langford, Wiltshire, is this carol. Known now as “A Virgin most Pure”, it is thought to have originated in Gloucestershire during the 16th century, and the earliest written version of this carol appeared in 1661 in a book called New Carolls for this Merry Time of Christmas, printed in London. The carol then disappeared from publications until the late 18th century when the words were published by a ballad printed in Tewkesbury. This time it had a new first verse – the now more familiar:

A virgin most pure [unspotted], as the prophets do tell
Hath brought forth a baby, as it hath befell

The form which appears in this book is the original version, with the first verse being:

In Bethlehem in Jewry a city there was
Where Joseph and Mary together did pass

This carol was particularly common in the west of England, especially in Gloucestershire. The book in the archives was begun 1692, and entries continue until 1756, suggesting that even if there were no printed versions of the carol in circulation at the time, it was still being performed and enjoyed in the West Country during these “lost” years.

By Eleanor Hoare, College Archivist