Secret St John's - January 2014

Each week we post an image from around the College, focusing on some of the smaller details of St John's.

Please contact Aisling O'Neill if you have any comments about the items or would like to suggest topics for future items.

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The Bridge of Sighs
27 January 2014

The Bridge of Sighs was built in the 1820s as the construction of New Court necessitated a second crossing of the river between Third Court and the new buildings on the Backs. The architect of New Court, Henry Hutchinson, seized the opportunity for some charming romanticism. The bridge bears little resemblance to its Venetian counterpart, but it is suggested that the steep buildings rising on either side of the narrow stream at that point give off a similar atmosphere of ‘romantic menace’, which allows punters to imagine themselves gondoliers on the canals of Venice for a short time.

Cecil Beaton
20 January 2014

Cecil Beaton came to St John’s from Harrow in 1922 to study history, art and architecture, and left without completing his degree in 1925. Following his death in 1980, 38 boxes of Beaton’s papers, including correspondence, diaries, notebooks and typescripts, were presented to the College by Beaton’s literary executors in 1986. Beaton was a devoted diarist, and he kept records of his time at St John’s. On his first day of residence the entry reads ‘I’m really terribly lucky to be up here without having passed the exam & I’m awfully lucky in getting these nice rooms & they are so central.’ Within weeks the tone changes as Beaton finds the College full of people who ‘looked and spoke so common’, and the food served in Hall ‘perfectly filthy’. From St John’s, Beaton went on to work for Vogue in New York and London, photographed the Royal Family, including the Duke of Windsor’s wedding to Wallis Simpson in 1937, and then worked as a war photographer during World War Two. He later won three Academy Awards for Costume Design and Art Direction for Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964). Beaton was knighted in 1972 and died in January 1980 at the age of 76.

The historical photographs were scanned and released by the Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence. The work was created by Cecil Beaton during his service for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War as an official photographer of the Home Front. In the UK, photographs taken in military service, or works of art created as part of military service, became controlled under the Crown Copyright provisions and so faithful reproductions may be reused under that licence, which is considered expired after 50 years.

© IWM (IB 2357);
© IWM (CBM 1725);
© IWM (D 4750)

Flood markers around St John's
13 January 2014

Around College there are several indications that Nature has not always been kind to St John’s. Most notable among these are the flood markers that can be found in Third Court and on the Kitchen Bridge. These show the high water mark that the river Cam reached at certain points over the years. On the Kitchen Bridge the two markers have the dates ‘Aug. 3rd 1870’ and ‘Mar. 14th 1947’, but more serious are the markers in Third Court that show that the river reached extremely high levels during October 1762 and February 1795. The most recent serious floods were in 2001, first in February and again on 22–23 October, with further serious flooding in February 2009.

The Divinity School
06 January 2014

The Divinity School on St John’s Street was built in 1878–9 by the University of Cambridge and was designed by the architect Basil Champneys. The College took full ownership of the building in 2001 and for several years various ideas were considered for how the Divinity School could be used, including a restaurant, a piano bar, a tourist information centre, a hotel and a research centre.

In 2007, the College made the bold decision to turn it into a multipurpose venue made up of offices, teaching rooms, an auditorium and a central hall. It was a huge engineering feat to turn what was once described as a ‘dark and gloomy maze’ into the light, open building it is today.

As with all restorations of old or listed buildings, it is a difficult balance to retain as many original features as possible and yet still integrate all the necessary technology, and meticulous planning was required to make sure that this was as seamless as possible.

Read more about the restoration of the Divinity School in this article by Dr Frank Salmon from the Eagle 2013.

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