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