Madonnas and Miracles

Yesterday, for one very good reason or another, my mid-morning student and I found occasion to pop over to the Fitzwilliam Museum for a spot of intensive culture, with a focus on the somewhat niche language for linear perspective (orthogonals, vanishing point, volumetric, and so on). 

Leaving aside the irrelevance that it was sparkling early-spring day, and a crying shame to be sitting in a classroom, we made a profitable trip. We had a look at the gallery of Italian art, and got about as far as the Titian and Veronese; then we wound around to the new exhibition they have on, Madonnas and Miracles, and pogoed rapidly but happily through that. To repeat, all very intensive and instructive.

We had spent a portion of the first lesson looking at a video on Khan Academy about Brunelleschi’s invention of linear perspective, and the exhibition provided a series of counter-examples to those we found in the permanent collection: any number of meditative devotional panels, their madonnas and children floating in abstract volumes of dark space, very unlike the coordinate location system of linear perspective. And very appropriate too, for icon-like works designed for private contemplation.

The exhibition focusses on religious imagery in domestic spaces, and comprises not just works of high culture (Filippo Lippi, workshop of Botticelli, etc.), but a good deal of demotic or low-grade devotional art, whether sculpture, illumination, painting, drawing or print. More of historical-sociological interest, then, than strictly aesthetic appeal.





Twilight at the Museum

Tonight is the annual Twilight at the Museums, where the consortium of Cambridge museums stays open to the witching hour of, um, half past seven.


Never mind. It is a nice idea, a little transgressive (museums are day-time places designed for rational enquiry), and a little magical (museums are repositories of significant objects in talismanic arrangements which, viewed by night, etc. etc.).

And what better emblem of this marriage of the rational and the arcane, the cerebral and the eerie, than William Herschel’s telescope, at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science. 

William Herschel was the great Germano-British astronomer (and musician – he was in his youth a notable composer and performer on the oboe) who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781. He also identified various of the clouds of dust in the Messier catalogue as star clusters, discovered in turn over 2,400 deep-sky objects which he identified as ‘nebulae’ (many of which would later and more properly be identified as galaxies by Edwin Hubble), made a systematic catalogue of binary stars, and discovered various small moons of Saturn and Uranus.

He also designed and made his own telescopes, so-called Herschelian telescopes, over four hundred of them, the largest with a forty-foot focal length and a 49.5 inch primary mirror. He gave one of his creations to his sister, Caroline, and she went on to discover various heavenly bodies, notably eight comets.

In truth, Hershel’s connection with Cambridge was nodding at best. He was born in Hanover, lived in Bath, and died in Slough. However, it was the acquaintance of a former professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, the Rev. John Michell, made through their shared musical interests, which stimulated his enthusiasm in astronomy. And the Whipple has one of his telescopes. So I’m claiming him.


The Fitzwilliam Museum has now passed beyond its 200th anniversary, and is wrapping up festivities. Among other things, it has made a short film in which visitors (mainly children, because they are I suppose more biddable) line up to say what they like about the museum, and how much they like it.


It is, if I may be excused the oxymoron, interestingly banal. No one has anything penetrating to say. They talk about the variety of the holdings, or their early experiences and associations, and it is very jolly and positive. I would say the same sort of things myself. But it remains uninteresting.The visitors are aware of the kind of things that might pass muster as answers to such questions, and they deploy those. But none of them is true.

This suggests a structural problem. I read somewhere that when people give bland answers, you have to assume they are concealing something, and this seems a plausible line of attack. I often find myself wondering what I am doing in various places, and I can provide answers (to myself or to others) which conceal my true purpose. The true purpose is usually economic (I am at my desk; I am in the classroom) or social (I am having sherry with my in-laws). So perhaps that is also, obliquely, the case with the Fitzwilliam Museum. I am socially, economically, of such a class; or I see myself as belonging to such a class. From time-to-time, therefore, I need to display the attributes of a person of that class. So I go the museum. I do not go to the greyhound racing. If the woman in the video whose friend came from Australia to visit the museum had said that as far as she was concerned, she’d rather be down the bingo, it would at least have been refreshing (if also edited out).

The word interest, needless to say, is an ambiguous one. Visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum may very well be interesting; it is also in your interest. Much of what you can see in the museum was buried with the privileged of their societies: grave goods mark out the elite of the tribe. And they are totemistic also for us. We go to the Fitzwilliam Museum (and induct our children into the Museum, also) because it signals our status. The interest we take in anything is anything but pure.

None of which, to repeat, means the the museum is not in fact more interesting than the bingo. It is. Much more interesting. But they should have let me make their video for them. I would have got some proper answers (especially from the children).


‘Winter is established.’
Gilbert White, November 16th, 1783 (Hampshire)

I do not know that November is a good time for study, especially: it sits too far adrift from the start of the academic year in September, when enthusiasm is high, and the end of the academic year is still a distant dream. The clocks have gone back, and things chug on in the gloom.

But there is study, and there is study. It is one thing to be sat in a classroom, drinking coffee, looking out at the rain, and finding alternative (and printable) words for the Cambridge weather; it is another thing entirely to be digging in the mud.


Just down the road from where I live, they have begun an archaeological dig. They are excavating the field just next to the Leper Chapel, a twelfth century edifice which stands in glorious isolation in a crook of the railway and the Newmarket Road. The Leper chapel was once one of the richest sinecures in England, commanding as it did the Stourbridge Fair, the largest fair in medieval Europe.

The field adjacent must once, I suppose, have been the leper hospital. They are excavating it now, preparatory to running the Chisholm Trail through it (see yesterday’s blog on the Chisholm Trail, here). It is a fit object of study. It will probably yield interesting finds. They will scrape in the mud and find nothing; and then one day they will find something, or stand back and see the shape of something, and it will all have been worthwhile.

But each day when I pass I see archaeologists stooping the mud and the rain and the cold, and I think myself lucky that I work indoors, in a classroom, and that we have a coffee machine bubbling away (figuratively, I hope) downstairs. Any sort of labour which involves stooping is anathema to my knees, and while I like to be out and about from time to time, the novelty of working outdoors rapidly wears off for me. I will sit this winter out, if all goes well, looking at the grey sky and the drizzle from room 5, drinking my hot coffee, and dreaming of spring with my students.

Chisholm Trail

If American towns were largely shaped in the era of the automobile, in Britain it was the railway which deformed the urban landscape. A town such as Cambridge, with its small medieval core, spread out along the axis of the new railway line which, while it connected Cambridge to other centres of population, disturbed the movement of people within the city.

When you have a railway running into a town, bridges have to be built over it, streets curtailed or diverted around and alongside it, traffic funnelled over it or under it. You can travel very quickly to Norwich or London, but to get from the Newmarket Road to Hills Road takes a bit of imaginative winding. The railway, psychogeographers will tell you, is an irrational, coercive presence.

But Cambridge is now being shaped by the needs of another cutting edge technology: the bicycle. And the railway and the bicycle might just turn out to be friends. To the chagrin of motorists, cyclists are accustomed to utilising the interstices of the city – pavements, parks, towpaths, traffic islands, front gardens, back gardens, and so on – to navigate the city better.

And now a new liminal space is opening up. In the mid 1990s, a Cambridge resident called Jim Chisholm noticed that the railway was skirted on both sides by strips of waste land, and began to understand that turning this land into a path or series of paths for pedestrians and cyclists which followed the railway would in fact link the town in felicitous ways. You could, for example, walk from Trumpington to the Science Park in half an hour (or something similar).

And now the Chisholm Trail is an actual thing, passing through various council planning departments and committees. It will involve the reclaiming of some tracts of land, the building of some bridges, the widening of some existing paths, and so on. But I estimate, for the benefit of the city council, that such a route would shave three-and-a-half minutes off my morning commute. Over a year, that amounts to 14 hours extra preparation time, or 14 hours extra in bed, depending on your productivity coefficient (mine is not high, admittedly). And that’s before you factor in the return journey. You may not be able to drive your dogies along it, but multiply my journey by several thousand, and hey presto!, you have a little bonanza of time in the post-Brexit gloom.


Cambridge Manuscript

Many students will by now have revelled in the exhibition of medieval illuminated manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but may have missed the recent discovery of an eleventh century psalter which almost certainly belonged to Saint Thomas à Becket, and which he may also have been holding at the moment of his martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.


The psalter has been in the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College in Cambridge for many years, and its association with Becket was discovered by chance. Christopher de Hamel, an expert on medieval manuscripts, was chatting with a colleague, and remarked on the fact that while in the middle ages objects associated with saints were generally revered, the same was not true of manuscripts owned by saints. His colleague said that he knew of one exception, and directed de Hamel’s attention to a very early description of a psalter which Becket was reputed to have been holding when he was struck down. De Hamel recognised the manuscript described as one held in the Parker Library, and the various connections fell into place.

The psalter in question was probably made for the eleventh century Saint Alphege, also martyred, in his case by the Danes at Greenwich; it would have passed into the hands of Becket, who held Alphege in particular esteem, and after Becket’s death was placed on his shrine at Canterbury. How it then filtered down to a library in a Cambridge college is anyone’s guess, but given that those libraries are among the most efficient and durable cultural filter-fish in the world, lying for centuries with their baleen-plates agog, it is perhaps not that surprising.

Cambridge Makespace

Where do inventors go in Cambridge when they want to build their prototypes? I always assumed that they would potter down to their shed, or perhaps into their garage, but it turns out not every inventor has a 3-d printer or industrial lathe or laser cutter at the bottom of the garden.


One of our students (now ex-students), the inestimable Yuji Ishikawa of Toshiba, discovered the answer. He spent quite a few evenings at the Cambridge Makespace on Mill Road, busying himself with the various software tools they have there, and seeking the company, I suppose, of like-minded individuals (Yuji is not an inventor, so far as I know; but he is an R&D software engineer working in the field of computer vision and self-driving cars).

Makespace is a 4000 sqft workshop stacked with the sort of tools you can only operate if you tuck your tie into your shirt: band saws, circular saws, drill presses, lathes, mitre saws, a glass-working kiln, a grinder, and so on. They also provide electronics workbenches, a vacuum former, 3-d printers, CAD workstations. And a sewing machine.

The space used to be part of the Institute for Manufacturing (a faculty of the University of Cambridge), and is available to members only (on a minimum three-month membership). I do not know that we have many students in need of a glass-working kiln, but it is nice to know where to go if the inspiration strikes.