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Cambridge Memoir (II) – Peterhouse

December 3rd, 2009 · No Comments · Books, Diaspora, PEOPLE, quotations, Uncategorized

Cambridge Memoir (II) – Peterhouse

17. Lord Dewar’s rescue

James Dewar No sooner that I accepted, with great glee, my Presidency of the Peterhouse Grad. Soc. the style of leadership had to change. New blood was needed to inject some tonus in the proceedings and I was determined to encourage more social contacts amongst its members, by creating  more diverse and interesting venues. As much as I would have liked to, I could not easily ask the College Housekeeper to change curtains or fitted carpets, or indeed the furniture.  I decided instead, in close consultation with James Thring, a student in architecture, to create  a bar area with a kitchenette, hidden behind a wooden screen. A new notice board was installed and the room was extended to the East to include an adjoining space and in the process we discovered an exciting  15th century Gothic  archway, hidden in the masonry. This was opened and preserved, enhancing the character of the room.

Still , I felt that the room lacked warmth and could do  with some period paintings. Rumor had it that there were some College paintings “hidden away” and I was determined to inspect and see if any might be available for our enjoyment, to cover the barren walls of the GCR.

I wrote to Professor Clark an  Archaeologist, who was in charge of the paintings held in storage.  I did not expect to find any long-lost Rubens, as I had no illusions that the best paintings the College had were actually hanging either in Hall,  in the Master’s Lodge, or the Fellows’ rooms. Still, it was worth trying.

Graeme Clark took me to the  William Stone building and there, in its dry cellars, were piled a series of oil paintings, which I felt were unfashionable, unloved and forgotten. I chose two  portraits – one of them was a Victorian oil of the Archbishop of York.  Poor fellow, he had collected a lot of dust and he deserved to be resurrected – he had a cheerful well painted face, quite a distinguished little painting, which should bring some style to our room.

Far more exciting, amongst the paintings in storage, was though the second sitter – Sir James Dewar, Fellow of Peterhouse, Fullerian Professor at the Royal Institution, in London  and Jacksonian Professor at Cambridge.  He taught at Cambridge since 1875 and was responsible for a series of inventions, one of which involved obtaining liquid oxygen and hydrogen. The  double-walled vacuum flask,  represented in this canvass and named after him, was used in all Chemistry laboratories round the world. This is the ubiquitous “thermos” flask, more politely known as the “Dewar flask”. The painting had  an uncanny resemblance with my grandfather’s Victorian photograph, in his Apothecary Lab in Buzãu and I took to it immediately.

In Romanian  textbooks Dewar was revered as a world scientist and I was shocked to find him relegated, by some unseen  if silent “Cultural Revolution”, to a corner of a College cellar. True, Dewar had not endeared himself in Cambridge, where he indulged in severe bullying of his staff: neither did he form a “school” around himself, although his early experiments in low temperature Physics (the liquefaction of hydrogen, in 1898), preceded by a good generation work done by Rutherford’s pupils on the liquefaction of helium, which he tried but did not succeed. To this Continental scientist, Dewar was an icon and his abandonment to a college repository, was an unmitigated piece of iconoclasm.

Sir William Quiller Orchardson, RA (1832-1910), who painted this portrait, was better known for his painting, “Napoleon on Board  the Bellerophon”, hanging in the Tate Gallery and other works in the “Uffici” of Florence. Dewar’s portrait was an important work, which  was probably commissioned soon after the scientist was knighted in 1904.  The style of the brush prefigured the  Edwardian taste and the chromatics of the portrait was characteristic of Orchardson’s muted colors, of predominant yellow and browns.  I felt a sense of urgency in rescuing  Dewar’s rubicund face straight away and bring it to light.  Today it still hangs  in its rightful place, amongst research students, in the GCR, at Peterhouse

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