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Hall Portraits

A Fellow of the College, Dr David Williams, gives his personal view on the paintings of alumni and benefactors, familiar to those who have visited and dined in Hall.

Lady Margaret Beaufort

Lady Margaret Beaufort by Roland LockeyBorn in the early 1440s (we know that her birthday was 31st May but the exact year is rather a mystery), Margaret Beaufort was the daughter of Margaret Beauchamp of Bletsoe and John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset, who was the great grandson of King Edward III. When she was born her father was due to set sail for France to lead a military foray for King Henry VI. He arranged with the king that should he die, Margaret's wardship would fall to his wife. On return from France, however, he was charged with treason and thus when he died, either of illness or possibly even suicide, Margaret's wardship was handed to William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk. As John Beaufort's only legitimate child, she inherited his considerable estate.

Margaret was first married to Suffolk's son John de la Pole at between one and three years of age. However, the marriage was annulled by the Pope as the families were considered to be too closely related, and Henry VI chose her as bride for Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond. They married when he was 24 and she only 12. Knowing that war had just broken out and his life might be short, Edmund wasted no time in producing an heir. He was right; Edmund died - not in battle, but rather of the plague - and by the time she was 13 Margaret was not only a mother but a widow as well. In fact she only just survived the birth and was unable to have another child.

Margaret married twice more, outliving both her third and fourth husbands, Henry Stafford the 1st Duke of Buckingham and Thomas Stanley the Lord High Constable. She conspired against Richard III, and her son Henry married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV. Henry himself became king after the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, and when he died Margaret became regent for her grandson, Henry VIII, having arranged her son's funeral and her grandson's coronation on 21st April 1509. She herself died only two months later.

Margaret Beaufort founded Christ's College in Cambridge, but it was there that she apparently contracted food poisoning from a poorly-cooked cygnet and later died. St John's was founded two years after her death following the strenuous efforts of her chaplain and confessor Bishop John Fisher. Her portrait in Hall was painted on wood many years after her death by Roland Lockey, who was particularly renowned as a goldsmith and for painting miniatures. The portrait shows her kneeling in prayer in front of her book of hours in a royal closet draped with gilt hangings. However, the eye is drawn predominantly to her face surrounded by her white nun's coif.

John Fisher

John Fisher, of the English SchoolTo the right of Lady Margaret in Hall is Bishop John Fisher, the real reason we are all here! It was he, as Lady Margaret's confessor, who ensured that her wish to found a new college, and the money that went with that desire came together. Fisher was born in 1469 in Yorkshire and studied at Cambridge at Michaelhouse, later to become Trinity College. Fisher became proctor of the university in the same year, 1494, in which he became Lady Margaret's confessor. Under his guidance, Lady Margaret founded Christ's and St John's, as well as professorial chairs in divinity in Oxford and Cambridge, with Fisher becoming the first holder of the Cambridge chair.

Fisher was instrumental in bringing scholars such as Erasmus from the continent to Cambridge to promote the study of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, but he was by no means an 'ivory tower' academic, rather being passionate about pastoral care and preaching. Henry VII had him made Bishop of Rochester by the Pope. It is somewhat ironic that he acted as tutor for Henry VIII, Lady Margaret's grandson, who was to split England away from Rome! When Henry divorced Catherine of Aragon, Fisher acted in her defence, saying he was prepared to lose his head, as did John the Baptist when he challenged Herod's marriage to his brother's divorcee Herodias. Fisher opposed Henry VIII's elevation of himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England and was sentenced to be hanged drawn and quartered as a traitor. The public outcry was so great that Henry commuted the sentence to beheading (exactly what happened to John the Baptist), and Fisher was accordingly put to death on June 22nd 1535.

John Fisher, based on a drawing by Hans Holbein the Younger, © Philip Mould, Ltd Fisher died with the same quiet dignity that had marked his entire life, but his body was treated with particular malice by Henry's henchmen, being stripped and left on the scaffold throughout the day before being deposited naked in a rough grave. Later the body was laid next to Thomas More who had been executed on July 6th.

Fisher was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1935.

The portrait in Hall was painted a considerable time after his death, but the bust also in Hall is far more likely to be representative of him. By Torrigiano, it closely resembles Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of Fisher from around 1530.

Erasmus Darwin

Erasmus Darwin, possibly by James Rawlinson, a copy of the portrait by Joseph Wright of DerbyThe next two gentlemen gracing the walls of Hall come from a very different era, the 1700s. Noah Thomas, on the left as you face Lady Margaret, was born in 1720 and came up to the College in 1738, while Erasmus Darwin, on the right, was born eleven years later and entered the College in 1750. Both men became doctors but with quite different experiences in the profession. Before we discuss these differences, notice how portly both are, with their respective artists emphasising how they only just manage to fit into their jackets! Obesity was a mark of having 'arrived' in that century rather than needing to get some exercise and cut down on rich dinners. Darwin, it is said, gave up weighing himself once he had reached 24 stone (150kg) and apparently employed his driver, heavier than he was, to walk in front of him ensuring that the floor would not give way!

We know much more about Erasmus, as he was the grandfather of Charles Darwin, so we will start with him and then move on to Noah. After his time at St John's, Erasmus, who was the youngest of seven children, moved to Edinburgh to pursue his clinical medical training, taking his MB degree in 1755. He then moved to Lichfield where he set up a clinical practice made particularly successful by his early cure of a young man whose death, we are told, was considered to be inevitable.

Erasmus had other occupations apart from medicine, being an important figure in the Lunar Society, a group of intellectuals in the West Midlands who met to discuss scientific matters. The group included luminaries such as Joseph Priestley (experimental chemist and discoverer of oxygen among other elements), James Watt (of the steam engine) and Josiah Wedgewood the potter. They were also involved in the abolition of the slave trade, thus paving the way for William Wilberforce who would enter the College 40 years after Darwin.

Darwin was also passionate about education for women, writing a book promoting it which was entitled 'A plan for the conduct of female education in boarding schools' as well as works on botany, pathology, and, importantly, evolution. In his volume Zoonomia he writes:

'Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!'

We must not let Christ's College, where Charles Darwin studied, claim all the credit for evolution, must we?

The portrait is by (or after) Joseph Wright of Derby who was closely linked with the first industrialists of the West Midlands, with patrons such as Wedgewood and Arkright.

Paul Dirac

Paul Dirac, by Michael NoakesNext to Erasmus Darwin hangs a portrait of Paul Dirac who was born in 1902, exactly 100 years after Darwin senior's death. Dirac was born in Bristol and educated there in a technical college which concentrated on subjects such as bricklaying and shoemaking, but also with a strong link to Bristol University where Dirac next studied electrical engineering. He won a £70 scholarship to St John's College but the economic hardships immediately after the First World War meant that this gave him insufficient funds to take up the position, and so he read Mathematics at Bristol, free of charge. After two years he graduated with first-class honours and was given a scholarship from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research which together with his funds from the Cambridge scholarship enabled him to move to St John's.

Here Dirac immersed himself in general relativity which Einstein had formulated just five years earlier. Dirac worked on quantum mechanics and discovered the relativistic equation for the electron, now known as the Dirac equation. He was the first to postulate antimatter since the concept of a positron to match the electron springs from his equation. Dirac is considered to be the founder of quantum electrodynamics describing how light and matter interact and called by Richard Feynmann 'the jewel of physics'.

Dirac was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge and was a meticulously precise individual, once saying 'I was taught at school never to start a sentence without knowing the end of it' and complaining of poetry that 'The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible'. When after a row his wife Manci asked what he would do if she left him, he apparently looked puzzled and then replied 'I would say goodbye dear'! Einstein is said to have remarked about him, 'This balancing on the dizzying path between genius and madness is awful' but perhaps it was only this incredible focus on his mathematics that allowed Dirac to be one of the greatest physicists in the world. Farmelo, his biographer, says of him 'Dirac's traits as a person with autism were crucial to his success as a theoretical physicist: his ability to order information about mathematics and physics in a systematic way, his visual imagination, his self-centredness, his concentration and determination.' Having said all that, perhaps the most perceptive comment Dirac made on his mathematics was, 'This result is too beautiful to be false; it is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiment.' Although, I fear one has to be a Nobel Prize winner, as Dirac was, to get away with such a statement!

Noah Thomas

Noah Thomas, by George RomneyNoah Thomas was born in 1720, the son of one Hophin Thomas, the master of a merchant ship from Glamorgan. He matriculated in 1738 and after receiving his BA in 1742 and his MA in 1746 he studied Medicine. Noah Thomas was a prominent Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, giving the Gulstonian lectures in 1759 and being the Royal College's commissioner for madhouses in 1781.

One might have thought this would stand him in good stead as Court Physician to King George III, but it seems that it was Thomas' colleague Sir Lucas Pepys who was the King's Physician at the time of his madness in the early 1800s. Noah Thomas, having died in 1792, sadly wasn't around to help the poor king.

The portrait is by George Romney, a particularly sought-after portrait painter of the time, famous for his depiction of Nelson's Lady Hamilton. Thomas is wearing his scarlet doctoral gown, and his amply-filled jacket and waistcoat show, as they do for Erasmus Darwin across the Hall from him, that he has 'arrived'!

Sarah, Duchess of Somerset

Sarah, Duchess of Somerset, by Sir Peter LelySt John's gained support from a number of prominent women, which might be seen as a little ironic given that we didn't admit them as students until 1982! Lady Margaret is our foundress of course, but Sarah, Duchess of Somerset, whose portrait hangs next to that of Noah Thomas, was another key benefactor. As with Lady Margaret we are not quite sure of the year of her birth; it may have been either 1630 or 1642. Her father, Sir Edward Alston, matriculated into the College in 1612, taking his BA in 1615 and MD in 1626. He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1631 and was its President in 1655.

Sarah married three times. Her first marriage was to George Grimston and although she had two sons with him they both died in infancy. Grimston died in 1665 leaving her a childless widow, but a gift from her father of £10,000 meant she was not penniless. Six years later she married John Seymour, Duke of Somerset, but this was not a happy marriage with John running up large debts. They separated in 1672 before he died three years later. Rather cleverly, Sarah obtained a royal warrant allowing her to remain Duchess of Somerset even if she married again. At the age of 50 she re-married, now to Henry Hare the 2nd Lord Coleraine, and this time he outlived her.

In her lifetime Sarah was a prolific benefactor, leaving land in March and Wiltshire to St John's, scholarships at Brasenose College Oxford and Tottenham Grammar School. Her portrait is by a follower of the Dutch artist Sir Peter Lely, who was the king's principal portrait painter after the Restoration. Lely was so busy that this large workshop included many junior artists painting under his direction, and this portrait comes from that group.

Richard Bentley

Richard Bentley, a copy of the portrait by Sir James Thornhill at Trinity CollegeOne might ask why the portrait next to Sarah Duchess of Somerset hangs in our Hall at all. It is of Richard Bentley who was Master of Trinity College. Yet he came up to St John's in 1676 and here as ever one can say 'once a Johnian, always a Johnian'! He arrived at Trinity as an outsider and his reforms of the College in no way endeared him to the Fellows there. They presented their measly list of complaints to the Bishop of Ely but he died before the matter could be resolved and the feud carried on for forty years while Bentley remained as Master.

All through this unhappy time Bentley continued his academic work and can rightly be said to be the foremost classical scholar of his time. His work on Horace and the Fables of Phaedrus was widely acclaimed, and he started a monumental revision of the Greek text of the New Testament but never finished it. He is credited as being the father of modern philology, all the more remarkable given that his mother was a seamstress and he was almost entirely self-taught.

Bentley was a good friend of Sir Isaac Newton and came up with that which we now call Bentley's paradox: if, as Newton's theory of gravitation predicts, all stars attract each other, they should be falling in towards each other. Why don't they? Newton admitted that this was a problem in a letter to Bentley, and this paradox remains an issue in astronomy today, provoking Einstein to add a fudge factor, the cosmological constant lambda implying a repulsive aspect to gravity, now considered by some to be Einstein's major blunder! Today it is thought that dark energy accounts for this paradox, although it can hardly be said to be resolved. What would Bentley have thought had he known his paradox would still be puzzling astronomers 300 years later?

Edward Villiers

Edward Villiers, by Hyacinthe Rigaud and studioOn the other side of the door leading to the Senior Combination Room from Richard Bentley hangs a portrait of Edward Villiers. He was admitted to College in 1671 and took his MA in 1672, which does seem a rather short time to proceed to his degree. I wonder which subjects he read in those few months! Maybe this rapid elevation came through his family connections, since he was the eldest son of Sir Edward Villiers, made Knight Marshal and given a royal manor in Richmond for his services in the Civil War. His sister Elizabeth was governess to Princesses Mary and Anne, both of whom became Queens of England. Edward himself travelled with Princess Mary to Holland after she married Prince William of Orange. This must have been a somewhat strange arrangement, for Elizabeth seems also to have been William's mistress!

None of this seems to have prevented Edward from advancement in the royal household, as he succeeded his father as Knight Marshal in 1689 and served as ambassador to Holland and France in the five years before the turn of the century, after which he took office as Lord Chamberlain. In 1697 he was created the 1st Earl of Jersey. So far, Edward had always backed the right political horses but in 1702 Villiers joined Lord Nottingham in Parliament and fell foul of the Earl of Godolphin who had the queen on his side. In 1704 he followed Nottingham into political exile but even so, by 1711 he was offered the post of Lord Privy Seal. What a shame he died of apoplexy (what we now know is a stroke) on the day of his investiture.

The picture is by Hyacinthe Rigaud, probably the most important baroque painter in the court of Louis XIV. Diderot the Enlightenment philosopher called his portraiture 'letters of recommendation written in the common language of all men.' His portrait of Villiers was given to the college by Matthew Prior, whose link with Villiers we will investigate later when we come to his portrait further down the Hall.

Thomas Wentworth

Thomas Wentworth, ascribed to Abraham Van Diepenbech, after Sir Anthony Van DyckOn to Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, which is the portrait next to that of Edward Villiers. Now here's a portrait that, as a vet, I really enjoy, given that a hound has such a prominent place in it! We'll come to the relevance of the dog in a moment, but first the man. Thomas Wentworth was a Yorkshireman through and through, the son of Sir William Wentworth of Wentworth Woodhouse, a major estate near Rotherham. Thomas came to St John's in 1609 to read law, having already studied in the Inner Temple. He was knighted in 1611 and became MP for York in 1614. The Alumni Cantabrigiensis tells us that 'he showed firmness and moderation in opposing the crown, when such a thing might risk you your head (see more below) but he was created Baron Wentworth in 1628 so he must have been a shrewd character! He was very much a soldier at heart as can be seen from the battledress he is sporting in the portrait, and was made Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1632 using firmness and imprisonment by the Star Chamber to secure regional stability, advocating invasion of Scotland to quell potential rebellion. He was a key advisor to Charles I and urged him to send opposing individuals in Parliament to the Tower. The trouble was that the king was by that time in a weakened position after his abject failure in the wars against Scotland and was not able to support his loyal lieutenant when the House of Commons passed a bill of attainder against him in 1640, by which he was executed a year later. Indeed, Charles was by all accounts ashamed of signing that death warrant and may even have seen his own execution nine years later as God's judgement on his abandoning Strafford. So back to the dog. Rather ironically, given his end, the inclusion of the hound in this picture may indicate fidelity, potentially that of Lord Wentworth to his patron the king. Or perhaps it is meant to depict Ireland obedient and quiescent under the firm martial rule imposed by Wentworth. The portrait is by Abraham van Diepenbeeck, a key artist of the Flemish school and a pupil of Rubens.

Lord Castlereagh

Lord Castlereagh, by Frank Moss Bennett, after Sir Thomas Lawrence's originalThe two portraits next to Wentworth are those of Wilberforce and Castlereagh, two politicians in parliament together who were not necessarily always side by side when it came to their politics, certainly when it came to slavery. For Castlereagh was initially a supporter of the slave trade, which Wilberforce worked throughout his life to abolish. But let us leave that issue to our discussion of Wilberforce himself, for Castlereagh, born in Dublin as Robert Stewart to an Irish politician and landowner in 1769, should be remembered for his key role in Britain's defeat of France and, as importantly, the peace in Europe which followed the Congress of Vienna in 1815. While it is Nelson and Wellington who are normally remembered for their successes at Trafalgar and Waterloo, it was Castlereagh who brought them together just days before the battle of Trafalgar, who ensured that Wellington got to Waterloo at all, and who carried Pitt the Younger's war plans to fruition after his death. His diplomacy brought together the European coalition which defeated Napoleon and stabilised Europe thereafter. It was his diplomatic talents too that had brought British and Ireland together to form the United Kingdom in 1801,, even though the Catholic emancipation he aimed for did not last, being widely opposed in Britain. But Castlereagh had his failings too. He fought a duel against his arch rival but fellow Whig politician George Canning, which led to both resigning from the cabinet. Although Castlereagh is up there in Hall he was only at St John's for a year, from 1786 to 1787, having to leave for health reasons, even though he obtained a first in his examinations, something unusual in students from aristocratic backgrounds such as his. The end of his life, however, was as notable if not more so than his student days. Castlereagh seems to have had mental health issues on and off throughout his life and at the height of his role as Foreign Secretary and leader of the House of Commons he took his own life, cutting his throat with a penknife. At the time suicide was a criminal offence, but it was decided that Castlereagh was affected by a 'grievous disease of the mind' thus allowing his body to be buried with full state honours in Westminster Abbey. There you might have thought things would end, but a year later a law student with a similar mental illness committed suicide and was judged guilty of 'felo de se' – the legal definition of suicide – and buried, consigned to an unmarked grave. Public outrage at this difference in treatment led to a sea change in the understanding of possible causes of suicidal tendency and significant alterations to the law so that suicide victims were considered 'non compos mentis' rather than outright criminals.

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce, by George Richmond, a copy of the portrait by T Lawrence in the National Portrait GalleryI guess that one of the best known portraits in Hall is that of William Wilberforce. Noah Thomas is a stranger to almost everyone, as are Richard Bentley and even Erasmus Darwin. Yet because of his life's work seeking to abolish the slave trade, Wilberforce is widely recognised as a key mover and shaker of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. As a student here at St John's, Wilberforce would not have seemed to anyone to be a figure worthy of note. Born in Hull in 1759, the only son of a wealthy merchant, William was a small delicate child with poor eyesight. His father died when he was nine years old and he went to stay with his aunt and uncle in London. Under their influence he became interested in evangelical Christianity, but alarmed at his leanings to radical religion his mother and grandfather brought him back to Hull four years later. He was educated at Pocklington School, whose founder John Dowman was a benefactor of St John's, establishing scholarships here at the College's foundation.

Wilberforce's grandfather and uncle died five years later allowing him to enter College a wealthy young man who could afford to neglect his studies and enjoy the social round of cards, gambling and late night drinking. Plus ça change, one might say! Wilberforce did make many friends, several of them influential, including the more studious William Pitt, future Prime Minister. The two of them would watch parliamentary debates from the Strangers' Gallery and even before graduating in 1781 Wilberforce was elected Member of Parliament for Kingston upon Hull. The fact he could easily spend £8,000 to ensure sufficient votes had a significant influence on this early entry into politics. Pitt contested the Cambridge seat in the same election but lost and had to wait a further year to secure a seat in the pocket borough of Abbelby which was under the control (in the pocket) of James Lowther, whom Pitt knew through university contacts.

In October 1784 Wilberforce undertook the classic European tour, and while travelling read Philip Dodderidge's The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. This lead to Wilberforce's conversion to the committed Christianity of his aunt and uncle. The year before this, Wilberforce met with several individuals concerned at the slave trade, including Thomas Clarkson who had also been at St John's. By the time Clarkson entered the vice chancellor's essay competition Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare (Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting?) Wilberforce had left College but that university link was instrumental in his involvement in an influential group, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, formed by Clarkson and others in 1787. Clarkson had visited Wilberforce earlier that year and presented him with a copy of his essay, now published in English. Clarkson met Wilberforce weekly, showing him more and more evidence of the appalling conditions endured by African slaves. With his new-found faith Wilberforce saw his mission in life to be directed towards emancipation of the slaves, as did Clarkson.

William Wilberforce (unfinished) by Thomas Lawrence - National Portrait GalleryIn 1791 Wilberforce moved the first of his bills in the House of Commons proposing the abolition of the slave trade, but at that point the motion was lost by 163 votes to 88. Indeed it was not until 1807 that the Slave Trade Act was eventually passed. This, as its name suggests, abolished the trade, but not slavery itself. It was not to be until 1833 that the final phase of this monumental campaign came to a conclusion. On 26 July, Wilberforce, his health having failed progressively over the last years, heard that government concessions meant it was certain that full abolition would be secured. The next day he became progressively weaker and died in the early morning of the 29th, knowing his life's work was complete.

The portrait of Wilberforce is a copy of that in the National Portrait Gallery. Thomas Lawrence, a key portrait painter of the period, was renowned for the length of time he took to finish a painting. The original in the National Portrait Gallery is unfinished as Lawrence died in 1830 leaving only Wilberforce's head fully painted in oils and his body only in charcoal on canvas – not that you would know that looking at the portrait hanging in Hall.

Matthew Prior

Matthew Prior, by Simon BelleI think of all the portraits hanging in Hall I feel most enthralled by Matthew Prior – he shows the sort of opportunities that a College can give if one is prepared to grab them! Prior was the son of a non-conformist minister in Wimborne, Dorset. His father moved to London and sent him to Westminster School; all seemed fine. But when his father died Matthew had to leave the school and go to work for his uncle who was a publican in the capital, cleaning the floor in his tavern. One might think that was the end of a potentially glittering life, but in the pub Matthew spent his spare time reading the classics. And thus it was that the Earl of Dorset found the child reading Horace in the corner of a bar! The Earl set Prior an ode to translate and was so impressed that he offered to fund Matthew's education which continued at Westminster and then at St John's where Prior received a scholarship. Actually, the Earl had other plans but Prior wanted to be sure of staying with his great school friend Charles Montagu, the 1st Earl of Halifax, who was a student at Trinity. The two wrote satirical verse and this ensured further patronage Matthew Prior, by Hyacinthe Rigaudwith Prior becoming secretary to the embassy at the Hague. Four years later he was promoted to be a Gentleman of the King's Bedchamber. Actually, Prior was particularly talented in speaking French and was widely used abroad by the Tories in power at the time. Prior's greatest achievement as a diplomat was the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession on terms broadly advantageous to Britain and her allies. The sort of opulent life he enjoyed at the time is shown in the Hall portrait with the substantial wig and the turned-back silk cuffs. The portrait is by Simon Belle, one of the key portrait painters in the court of Louis XIV. Prior gave it to the College, maybe to show just how well he had done after the floor-cleaning exploits of his early life! Just for interest, look at this quite different portrait, possibly by Hyacinthe Rigaud, another important French court painter at around the same time, which hangs in the Wordsworth Room – the cloth is still very fine but the accoutrements and the silk are gone, showing Prior in a more poetic and less courtly mode. With Wordsworth's larger canvas just across the Hall I fear we all too frequently forget that a century before that Lakeland poet, Matthew Prior held a similar position as one of the key versifiers in England. When the Whigs regained the upper hand in Britain, however, such positive thoughts were banished and Prior was stripped of his privileges and kept in custody by Prime Minister Robert Walpole from 1715 to 1717. This treatment did him no good and Prior died at Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire five years later. The range of books he left to the library show his diverse interests in the Classics, History and Geography, and his poetry is certainly worth your attention.

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth, by Henry William PickersgillIf you had to choose the most famous person to have graduated from St John's I guess William Wordsworth would have to be very near the top of the list, if not at its summit. Yet how many people know that this great Lakeland poet was at St John's? Were they to have immersed themselves in his poetry they would have not just a clue of his collegiate origins but a whole poem's worth of description of his time here. For Books III and VI of the prelude discusses in detail Wordsworth's time at Cambridge and his feelings about College and University life.

Not that this starts very cheerfully: 'It was a dreary morning when the wheels, Rolled over a wide plain o'erhung with clouds.' Can you imagine Wordsworth's feelings on his long journey from the hills and lakes of Cumbria in October 1787, only to arrive in the drear flat fens? He was travelling with his uncle William Cookson, a Fellow at the College, and his cousin John Myers, who was to be a student with William, both of them sizars, that is to say students of limited means for whom funding for meals was provided by College, rather than a pensioner, these being sons of more affluent parents. William's father was a lawyer but always distant from his children, so when his mother died William, aged eight, was sent to board at Hawkshead School. Here he was well tutored in Mathematics and the Classics with the unfortunate effect that Wordsworth arrived in Cambridge to find he had little work to do in his first year. Hawkshead School had been founded by Bishop Edwin Sandys, himself a graduate of St John's back in 1538, and this, together with his family connection through Cookson, meant that St John's was the natural College for William. Wordsworth had entered the College with the aim of excelling in mathematics and hopefully taking over from his uncle as a Fellow there. But Cambridge weaved a different spell on him. As he notes in The Prelude

                                          'I was the Dreamer they the Dream,
                                              I roamed delighted through the
                                                        motley spectacle;
                                             Gowns grave, or gaudy, doctors,
                                                        students, streets.
                                          Courts, cloisters, flocks of churches,
                                                        gateways, towers.
                                          Migration strange for a stripling of
                                                             the hills;
                                                      A northern villager.'

The delights of Cambridge seemed more attractive than study:

                                             'The weeks went roundly on,
                                    With invitations, suppers, wine and fruit,
                                 Smooth housekeeping within, and all without.
                                       Liberal, and suiting gentleman's array.'

even though his accommodation was not quite what one might hope for:

                                   'The Evangelist St. John my patron was:
                               Three Gothic courts are his, and in the first
                                  Was my abiding-place, a nook obscure;
                              Right underneath, the College kitchens made,
                               A humming sound, less tuneable than bees
                               But hardly less industrious; with shrill notes
                               Of sharp command and scolding intermixed.'

The 'nook obscure' forms part of what is now the Wordsworth Room in First Court but I'm sure William would be surprised at its current grandeur! Wordsworth was clearly not enthused by the idea of studious endeavour; he considered his industrious fellow students thus:

                                   O'er the ponderous books they hung
                                    Like caterpillars eating out their way
                                  In silence, or with keen devouring noise

But the whole atmosphere of a town and university previously associated with writers such as Chaucer (the miller in the Reeve's Tale lived in Trumpington), Spenser (a student at Pembroke College 200 years earlier) and Milton (a student at Christ's College 150 years before) led Wordsworth into a poetic rather than mathematical life. The French Revolution began while Wordsworth was at St John's and had a profound effect on him. After graduating Wordsworth and Coleridge visited France where Wordsworth fell in love, fathered a child but unfortunately had to return home with personal financial problems and national political troubles on the horizon. After further continental visits Wordsworth resided in the Lake District, becoming the renowned poet we remember today. It cannot be said that Wordsworth had a particularly happy time as a student in Cambridge, but even so the town and university had a profound effect on him. The portrait hanging in Hall is by Henry William Pickersgill, a pre-eminent British portrait painter of the time, with the National Portrait Gallery having over fifty of his works from Admiral Lord Nelson to William Faraday. Interestingly his wife was the first person to be legally cremated in the UK! Wordsworth clearly liked the portrait:

                                            To the Author's Portrait

                        Go, faithful Portrait! and where long hath knelt
                        Margaret, the Saintly Foundress, take thy place;
                           And, if Time spare the colours for the grace
                          Which to the work surpassing skill hath dealt,
                       Thou, on thy rock reclined, though kingdoms melt
                         And states be torn up by the roots, wilt seem
                         To breathe in rural peace, to hear the stream,
                             And think and feel as once the Poet felt.
                      Whate'er thy fate, those features have not grown
                          Unrecognised through many a household tear
                     More prompt, more glad, to fall than drops of dew
                         By morning shed around a flower half-blown;
                             Tears of delight, that testified how true
                          To life thou art, and, in thy truth, how dear!

Alfred Marshall

Alfred Marshall, by William RothensteinNext to Wordsworth's portrait hangs that of Alfred Marshall. 'Who?' you might ask. Almost everyone has heard of Wordsworth, and even read some of his work, if only 'I wandered lonely as a cloud...' Yet how many people have heard of Marshall and read any of his books? Alfred Marshall was one of the most influential economists of his time and arguably has a far greater influence on Britain in the twenty-first Century than Wordsworth could ever hope for!

Marshall was born in Clapham, London, in 1842, the son of a bank cashier with a strong evangelical faith. Alfred came up to St John's in 1861. He showed a real aptitude for mathematics and studied hard (ironic then, that he hangs next to Wordsworth who similarly showed initial promise in the subject but didn't study hard and ended up as one of our greatest poets!) Marshall was second wrangler, obtaining the second highest marks in maths in 1865. He experienced some degree of mental crisis following this, however, and turned to philosophy. He was especially drawn to metaphysics and moral philosophy with his reading taking him particularly into the area of utilitarian ethics and thence to economics, since it seemed that this was the route through which to influence the improvement of the conditions of the working classes. Marshall saw a key feature of economics as influencing social and political forces in the remodelling and improvement of society, this quite probably linked with his Christian upbringing. In 1865 Marshall was elected to a Fellowship. He founded what came to be called the 'Cambridge School' with such luminaries as John Maynard Keynes following his lead.

He is acknowledged as a prime mover in the transition of economics to be a more rigorously mathematical subject, yet he never let maths be the leader, merely the servant of economics. In a letter to A. L. Bowley he wrote '(1) Use mathematics as shorthand language, rather than as an engine of inquiry. (2) Keep to it till you have done. (3) Translate into English. (4) Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life (5) Burn the mathematics. (6) If you can't succeed in 4, burn 3. This I do often.'

Marshall was particularly interested in the role of women in society and women's emancipation, marrying Mary Paley, one of the first female students in the University. On marriage, as were the rules in those days, Marshall had to leave his Fellowship. He became Principal of Trinity College, Bristol but then moved back to Cambridge as Professor of Political Economy in 1884. From that moment he aimed to start a Tripos in Economics, but this took nearly twenty years to achieve. His key book was Principles of Economics and it was Marshall who first drew the graph of supply and demand, a concept used the world over. In later life Marshall's health failed him and he died in Cambridge in 1924. He left his sizeable library to found the Marshall Library of Economics here and his house, now part of Lucy Cavendish College, in named Marshall Hall.

Abdus Salam

Abdus Salam, by Anthony Morris, RPIt might be said that the vast majority of the portraits in Hall are elderly, white, upper-class men, and maybe that reflects the student population of College in the first four hundred and fifty years of its existence. But St John's is a different place now and that is demonstrated in the two portraits of Abdus Salam and Manmohan Singh who help reflect the international flavour of the student body over the last half century. The posthumous portrait of Abdus Salam by Anthony Morris was commissioned to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Salam's election to a Fellowship here. He was born in the Sahiwal district of the Punjab, this being a relatively poor agricultural area. At the age of fourteen he scored the highest marks ever recorded in the matriculation examinations at the Punjab University and won a full scholarship to the University of Lahore. Salam excelled at English and Urdu but chose Mathematics as his focus. The Indian Civil Service was considered the highest target for a graduating student and Salam attempted to enter the state-owned Indian Railways. Thankfully for the world of mathematics he was not accepted as he had always worn spectacles and failed a mechanics examination. In 1946 he received an MA in Mathematics from Lahore University and obtained a scholarship which brought him to St John's. Here he excelled, gaining a double first in Mathematics and Physics, the later in a single year after his supervisor, the renowned astrophysicist Professor Fred Hoyle, had set him the task as 'a challenge'! Dirac, who now spies him across the body of the Hall, influenced him equally but it was to Nicholas Kenmer he was assigned as a PhD student. Kenmer told Salam that all the problems in quantum physics had already been solved by his brilliant student P. T. Matthews but that Salam should ask if Matthews had any 'crumbs left'! Matthews gave him one intractable problem, that of overlapping infinities in meson theory with the understanding that if he hadn't solved it in six months Abdus should give it back. Within three months the solution was on Matthews' desk. He wrote '... some of the details are to this day too complicated for me to follow, at least in the time I have hitherto been able to spare for it ... Today I feel I am much more Salam's pupil than his teacher.' Matthews had aimed to tackle the problem in a year's worth of postgraduate study but as he said '"this chap Salam" has already solved the problem!' This catapulted Salam to the top of research physics where he remained, moving to Imperial College where he was Professor of Theoretical Physics until 1964, when he was central in the creation of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste which he directed until his retirement thirty years later. In 1979 he shared the physics Nobel Prize with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow for the historic unification of the weak nuclear force with the electromagnetic force. All these accolades and distinctions never changed Salam though, who always considered himself 'a humble man'. He dedicated much of his life to international peace and collaboration, attempting to break down the gap between the developed and developing nations, which he felt required much more than mere financial aid but rather the preparation of an indigenous scientific elite who could make countries like Pakistan arbiters of their own scientific and technological destinies.

Frederick Sanger

Frederick Sanger, by Paul HodgsonThe two people whose portraits you see on either side of Hall as you enter are both famous individuals, with Manmohan Singh being the current Prime Minister of India, and Frederick Sanger, one of the few double Nobel Prize winners and a founding father of modern molecular biology.

Frederick Sanger was born in Gloucestershire in 1918, his father a general practitioner who had been a medical missionary in China before becoming a Quaker on return to England through ill health. The family moved to Tamworth in Arden and Frederick went to a Quaker school in Malvern. From there in 1936 he became an undergraduate at St John's where his father had also studied. While he started out thinking that he would follow his father into medicine, Frederick told us that 'before going to University I had decided that I would be better suited to a career in which I could concentrate my activities and interests more on a single goal than appeared to be possible in my father's profession'. He thus read Natural Sciences but struggled with Physics and Mathematics in the first year and so replaced Physics with Physiology, taking three years to gain his Part I – there is hope for us all!! Ernest Baldwin at St John's particularly excited Sanger about Biochemistry, and as for his Part II, Sanger concentrated on the subject in what was the relatively new department founded by Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins who had been awarded a Nobel Prize in 1929 for the discovery of vitamins. I bet that if anyone has suggested to the undergraduate Sanger that he would double Hopkins' Nobel tally he would simply have laughed!

Both Sanger's parents died of cancer during his first two years at Cambridge, but he was much influenced by their Quaker faith and was a pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II. Sanger took his degree in 1939, saying that he 'surprised myself and my teachers by obtaining a first class examination result'. He began studying for his PhD in 1940 working under N. W. 'Bill' Pirie, who was the first to crystallize a virus, the tobacco mosaic virus, in 1936. A few months after Sanger started working with him Pirie moved to the Rothamsted Experimental Station, rather leaving Sanger high and dry in Cambridge. Maybe this was for the best – Sanger was set to determine whether edible protein could be artificially extracted from grass, but his new supervisor Albert Neuberger moved him to nitrogen metabolism in potatoes, though his thesis ended up on the subject of lysine in the animal body. Neuberger moved to the National Institute for Medical Research in 1942 and Sanger then worked with Charles Chibnall, a protein chemist. He must have wondered what results this continual moving from one supervisor to another would have, but actually it provided the ideal path to Sanger's future successes. Chibnall had been investigating the amino acid composition of the hormone insulin, and suggested that Sanger should continue the work. Most proteins had to be laboriously separated and purified, but at least insulin could easily be purchased at medical grade from Boots the Chemist! Even so the task took Sanger nearly ten years, but he triumphed in determining the full amino acid sequence of the two polypeptide chains of bovine insulin, work for which Sanger gained his first Nobel Prize in 1958. It seems second nature to us now that proteins have a defined sequence of amino acids but Sanger was the first to show this, a crucial step in Francis Crick's Sequence Hypothesis regarding how proteins are produced from the information held in DNA.

In his 1958 Nobel lecture Sanger said 'I, myself, have been particularly fortunate. For about fifteen years I have been doing the work I wanted to do, work that I felt was worth-while and that I enjoyed doing. We are lucky, but I think perhaps we may draw the conclusion that whatever you do in life you will do it much better if you like doing it and are interested in it. We all dream, about what we will be and what we will do and very often these dreams seem rather wild and foolish, but that is how it should be and my advice to you would be to follow those dreams as far as possible and try to do that thing that really interests you and you feel is really worth-while. Especially in science we need young people with plenty of enthusiasm and new ideas, for so often we find the really new and original ideas come from the younger people who are not hampered by having too many fixed ideas. It is from you students that we expect the scientific advances of the future and a very exciting and interesting future it is likely to be.'

I wonder if Sanger could have guessed how exciting the next twenty years were going to be for him! In 1962 Sanger moved to Max Perutz's unit in the newly-built Laboratory of Molecular Biology, and moved from proteins to nucleic acids, but with sequencing still as his prime focus. An amazing sequence of research papers ensued, published together with his reports on protein sequencing in Selected Papers of Frederick Sanger with Commentaries in the 20th Century Biology series. So in 1980 Sanger was awarded a second Nobel Prize, one of only four scientists to have been awarded the Prize twice. Sanger was self-deprecatingly modest about his achievements, spending his time gardening in his Cambridgeshire home, but it is no surprise that the centre from which much gene sequencing, so central to modern medicine and biology, emanates should be named the Sanger Institute. Fred Sanger died 19 November 2013.

Manmohan Singh

Manmohan Singh, by Sanjay BhattacharyyaIt is to be welcomed greatly, the Master tells us at the Matriculation Dinner when pointing to the portrait of Manmoham Singh, that as Prime Minister of India, a Johnian is the democratically elected leader of a sixth of the world's population. He regrets only that more of the global populace is not under the influence of College alumni! Manmohan Singh, like Abdus Salam whose portrait hangs next to his, was born in the Punjab, then in British India but partitioned between the independent nations of India and Pakistan when he was fifteen years old. Although he was a Sikh, Manmohan Singh studied at the Hindu College in Amritsar where his family had moved following partition in 1947. He attended Panjab University in Chandigarh and then in Hoshipar before gaining a bursary to travel to St John's where he studied Economics, obtaining his bachelor's and master's degrees in 1952 and 1954, and gaining first-class degrees throughout his academic career.

In an interview with Ross Tully Manmohan Singh noted: 'At (Cambridge) University I first became conscious of the creative role of politics in shaping human affairs, and I owe that mostly to my teachers Joan Robinson and Nicholas Kaldor. Joan Robinson was a brilliant teacher, but she also sought to awaken the inner conscience of her students in a manner that very few others were able to achieve. She questioned me a great deal and made me think the unthinkable.'

After taking his degree Manmohan returned to teach in the Panjab University, coming back to the UK, but to Oxford where he studied for his DPhil. After completing that he went back to work in India before moving to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) from 1966 to 1969. In 1969, Singh became a Professor of International Trade at the Delhi School of Economics. He then became Chief Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Finance and in 1976 he was Secretary in the Finance Ministry. At the time, India's economy was in a pretty dire position with its fiscal deficit close to 8.5 per cent of the gross domestic product, ironically about the same as we currently have (2013) in the UK, but with a huge balance of payments deficit and meagre foreign reserves.

In 2004 Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister and since then has turned around not only Indian economics but important areas such as rural healthcare and education. Homeland security continues as a major problem, especially with regards to areas such as Kashmir but, as the BBC says, Prime Minister Singh 'has enjoyed massive popular support, not least because he is seen by many as a clean politician untouched by the taint of corruption that has run through many Indian administrations'.

John Williams

John Williams, by Gilbert JacksonJohn Williams, who looks down on us from the gallery over the Screens Passage, was born in Aberconwy in North Wales in 1582 and educated at Ruthin School, one of the oldest in the UK, before becoming a student at St John's. He graduated with a BA in 1601 and an MA in 1605. Having become a clergyman it took him only another five years to deliver a sermon in front of the king which impressed James I so much that he appointed Williams as his chaplain. By 1620 he was Dean of Westminster, swiftly advancing to become Bishop of Lincoln in 1621 as well as Lord Keeper, the equivalent of Chancellor. He was a strong supporter of James I but did less well with other authority figures. He alienated Charles I as Prince of Wales by disapproving of his exploits in Spain with the rather jaunty Duke of Buckingham, whose portrait hangs in my room. Buckingham was assassinated in 1628 but Williams survived, though distinctly out of favour in court and intensely disliked by William (later Archbishop) Laud whose glowering portrait also stares down from my walls if you ever want to come and look at the two of them! Bishop Williams was charged with revealing State secrets and Laud thought that this would be sure to remove him from his episcopal office, but Williams was made of sterner stuff and entertained guests lavishly in his Bishop's palace until he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Few leave there alive, but, true to form, Williams was eventually released by the king. Rather ungraciously Williams was happy enough to see Laud and the Earl of Strafford, whose portrait with the dog at hand also hangs in Hall, impeached. It is not clear whether he had a part in Laud's execution but he certainly seems to have urged the king not to support Strafford when Parliament called for his death. Laud was a Fellow at St John's in the other place, so one might not expect Williams to have supported him, but it seems a little unfriendly to have been involved in the execution of a fellow Johnian. Such were the niceties of the seventeenth century, I guess! Williams left his imprint on the College by giving the money to build the College library and his monogram, 'I[ohannes] L[incolniensis] C[ustos] S[igilli]', is built into its west end for all to see.

Thomas Morton

Thomas Morton, attributed to Simon LuttichuysStanding rather solemnly between Ralph Hare and John Williams, looking down on us as we dine, is Bishop Thomas Morton. Keeping in step with the authorities was a life-preserving occupation in the seventeenth century and Morton was a master at that, at least to start with. Born in York in 1564 he was educated in a grammar school there and came to St John's in 1582, graduating with a BA two years later and an MA in 1590. His Christian beliefs were more towards the puritan and Calvinist view than many in Cambridge at the time but the Master of St John's at the time, Williams Whitaker had the same perspective of faith and picked out Morton to be a Fellow of the College where he progressed to the degree of Bachelor of Divinity in 1598 and Doctor of the same subject with great distinction eight years later. He was University Lecturer in Logic but went back to York as a minister in Long Marston there and chaplain to Henry Hastings who had the rather grant title of Lord President of the North! One might think of Morton as an academic through and through but while the plague was devastating York Morton devoted himself to those confined to the pest house there. He was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth who sent him as ambassador extraordinary to the Holy Roman Emperor. While there he interacted with many European theologians and when the queen died he returned to England and wrote voluminously.

He rose through the ranks of the church, first as the new king's chaplain, then Dean of Gloucester, Dean of Winchester before moving to be Bishop of Chester, then Lichfield and Coventry and finally Bishop of Durham in 1632. All seemed to be rosy but those of you who know your history will be aware that seven years later the Scots crossed the River Tweed aiming for Durham itself. Morton moved to Yorkshire and then down to London where he took his Bishop's seat in the House of Lords with John Williams whose portrait hangs next to his. These were not happy times though and Morton was very nearly accosted by an angry mob on his way to the houses of Parliament. He, Williams, and the other ten bishops were impeached and all but Morton and one other were committed to the Tower of London. He resided with Royalist friends at a time when all others around him were Cavalier. The key English Puritan minister Richard Baxter, who as a schoolboy was confirmed by Morton in Durham, called him 'one of the learnedest and best bishops that ever I knew'. But he was from St John's so we wouldn't expect any less would we?

Sir Ralph Hare

Sir Ralph Hare, by Marcus Gheeraerts the youngerFor someone who was so generous to the College, financing the new College Library and supporting thirty scholars in the College, we really know very little about Sir Ralph Hare whose portrait hangs in the gallery, showing him resplendent in his ribbon and jewel of the Order of the Bath, of which James I made him a Knight at his coronation in 1603. Sir Ralph originated from Stow Bardolph in Norfolk and was admitted to Trinity College in 1584. He saw the light at some point, however, and endowed St John's with the land and thus the income of the Rectory in Marham, again in Norfolk. He was a lawyer of some repute and clerk of the Queen's Bench in the late 1500s before becoming coroner for Norfolk and residing in Stow Bardolph just a few miles from Marham. And that really is all I can tell you about Hare. Much more is known of the artist, Marcus Gheeraerts the younger, the leading portraitist in London at that time. His most famous work is the glorious full length 'Ditchley' portrait of Queen Elizabeth I but he painted many of the important members of court throughout Elizabethan and Jacobean times. In 1631 Hare's son offered to loan the portrait to the College so St John's could make a copy of it, but it seems that this is the original that we never gave back!