Archive | July 2019

Pick, pluck or even savour the day

Enjoy the promotional video for this fantastic new exhibition in the Ashmolean, running until January 12. There’s a wonderful collection of artefacts on display, from Pompeii and elsewhere, and you can find me raving about it here, all thanks to a freebie from Sophie Hay. This piece, for example, combines at least three of my favourite things, Latin, Hercules, and piglets.

I have just one bone to pick, and it’s with the encouragement to “seize the day” at the end of the video. Not that you shouldn’t be prepared to commandeer a train if that’s what it takes to get to this show — my problem is simply with “seize the day” as an English translation of Horace’s motto carpe diem, which in the Latin is a much richer turn of phrase. As Tom Holland (another beneficiary of Sophie’s generosity) pointed out to me, furthermore, once properly appreciated the full meaning of carpe diem would serve well an exhibition largely concerned with Roman foodstuffs and sensory pleasures.

Carpe diem originates in one of Horace’s lyric poems, Odes 1.11, and it expresses a characteristically lyric sentiment: live for the moment. “Seize the day” captures that well enough, but “seize” does a poor job, really, of conveying the Latin carpe. To get a better sense of it, Nisbet & Hubbard cite approvingly (it is not always so) the ancient commentator Porphyrio: “the metaphor”, Porphyrio writes, “is from fruit, which … we pick (carpimus) in order to enjoy.”

Now, you might use carpere of picking or plucking a flower, too, and whether the day is a fruit or a flower it works well enough for Horace’s poem, where the instruction, addressed to a woman named Leuconoe, also carries an erotic charge. But I think conceiving of the day as a metaphorical apple or plum (or quince, if you prefer) works best. What an apple on a tree represents is something needing to be exploited in a very narrow window of time, when the fruit is ripe but before it spoils. Life is to be enjoyed now, Horace insists, because who knows what will happen tomorrow.

Needless to say, the notion that life is an apple, and there’s no time to waste before you sink your teeth into it, applies especially well to the unfortunate inhabitants of Pompeii in AD 79.

Joy in numbers

Frewin chronogram

I do like a chronogram, an inscription (preferably Latin, for me) that encodes a date. In fact so big a fan am I that my one regret, should the proposal to remove the memorial to Cecil Rhodes on the High St facade of Oriel College in Oxford be realised, is that it would also obliterate a rather nice chronogram.

This example at Oriel can illustrate the principle of the exercise. The inscription, E LARGA MVNIFICENTIA CAECILII RHODES, “Out of the bountiful munificence of Cecil Rhodes”, is in perfectly natural Latin, but if one adds up all letters which could also be Roman numerals (highlighted here: E LARGA MVNIFICENTIA CAECILII RHODES), one gets 50 + 1,000 + 5 + 1 + 1 + 100 + 1 + 100 + 100 + 1 + 50 + 1 + 1 + 500 = 1,911, or 1911, the date when the Rhodes Building, on the facade of which this memorial is set, was completed.

But it’s another, less controversial, Oxford chronogram I’m concerned with today. Frewin Hall is a grand house in the centre of Oxford now incorporated into an annexe of undergraduate accommodation for Brasenose College. From 1887 to 1907 it was rented from Brasenose by Charles Shadwell, friend of Walter Pater and future Provost of Oriel. Over the main entrance to the house is written FREWINI CAROLVS LAETAT SHADWELLIVS AVLAM, with the numerically-meaningful letters, as I hope you can see at the top, highlighted. 5 + 5 + 1 + 1 + 100 + 50 + 5 + 50 + 500 + 5 + 5 + 50 +50 + 1 + 5 + 5 + 50 + 1,000 = 1888.

This strikes me as a particularly sophisticated example of the genre. The reading of an upper-case double-u as two Vs is witty, and the line is both metrical, a dactylic hexameter, and perfectly symmetrical in the disposition of the Latin words.

Which makes odder the things that have been (and are still) said about it.

An Oxford Childhood by Carola Oman describes the very privileged existence of the daughter of a Fellow of All Souls before the First World War. From 1908 the Oman family rented Frewin Hall from C. B. Heberden, the Principal of Brasenose who preferred to live on the main site. (Heberden was a Classicist, and before becoming Principal my predecessor-but-three.) At a remove of nearly seventy years (An Oxford Childhood was published in 1976), Oman slightly misremembers the details as she describes the inscription (p. 106):

There was never any chance of us buying Frewin Hall. It had belonged to Brasenose College since 1580. By New Year 1908 it had stood empty for seven years. Dr Heberdon, who had taken a lease from Dr Shadwell, who had gone off to become Provost of Oriel, had at last decided against retiring there. Shadwell had been an Oxford eccentric. He had rebuilt the west wing and added a sundial with what was called a chronogram to his facade. This read–


People who knew said he had not got it quite right. Instead of saying that Frewin Hall delighted Charles Shadwell, it was saying that he delighted Frewin Hall. There was no doubt he had loved the house, and particularly his spacious lawn. If he detected a weed he would drop a massive bunch of keys as an order that it be instantly removed.

My question is, did Shadwell, as Oman suggests, really get it wrong? It would certainly be odd if such a perfectionist (the keys), who delighted in the eccentric precision required to compose a chronogram, even making perfectly symmetrical hexameters out of them (it’s hard enough in prose, experto credite), admitted an elementary mistake in Latin.

Let’s look at that Latin. What it certainly means is “Charles Shadwell brings joy to the Hall of Frewin”, and this has not seemed an appropriate sentiment to attach to the front door of a beloved house. Here is someone else, claiming a close acquaintance with Shadwell even (and being spectacularly patronised by the author James Hilton FSA), interpreting it in a way that the Latin won’t admit, but seems more natural: “Charles Shadwell rejoices in Frewen’s Hall.” But that would require the deponent laetor with an ablative, not the active laeto governing a direct object that we have.

I am here to rescue Shadwell’s reputation, in respect of his Latin at least. And I think the key to understanding that laetat lies in Shadwell’s activities at Frewin.

The Hall dates back to about 1600, although its main cellar is much older, circa 1100, a remarkable survival of a wealthy Norman house that stood on the site. (There’s a fascinating analysis of the building here.) The name Frewin comes from Richard Frewin, who in the eighteenth century somehow managed to combine being a physician and Camden Professor of Ancient History, and gave the building a whole new wing. But Shadwell made his own significant additions to the building, bringing in the leading architect of nineteenth-century Oxford, Thomas Jackson, to add a full upper storey, in place of an attic, to the west wing above the main entrance. In November 1887 Shadwell informed the Bursar of Brasenose that he had “now settled with Jackson on the plans for the new storey at Frewen Hall” (details from Elizabeth Boardman’s research here.)

Jackson’s work at Frewin presumably kicked in after Christmas, and thus was carried out in 1888, as indeed the Arabic-numeral date under the sundial on the new facade indicates. (The sundial with its initials of Shadwell and his coat-of-arms is evidence also of his singular self-importance…) Our other witness reads the date in the chronogram as marking the year in which Shadwell took up residence at Frewin, but surely it’s rather to this work of renovation that it refers. The natural way to read Frewini Carolus laetat Shadwellius aulam, “Charles Shadwell brings gladness to Frewin Hall”, seems to me a reasonable expression of what architectural renovation achieves, at least given the constraints of the chronogram form. In other words Shadwell is telling us that he is bringing joy to Frewin, not Frewin to him, but what he’s talking about is how he turned the building into a much happier example of domestic architecture. I agree, as it happens, but you can decide for yourselves if he (and Jackson) succeeded, from images before the intervention (the main entrance is to the left),

Frewin pre Jackson

Royal Collection Trust

and after:

Frewin after

The more attentive among you, incidentally, will have noted that the college containing the chronogram of Caecilius Rhodes and the college of which Shadwell became Provost are one and the same: Oriel. Shadwell was Provost of Oriel from 1905 to 1914, and we can safely assume he was responsible also for E LARGA MUNIFICENTIA CAECILII RHODES, and I would hazard for many other of these monumental brainteasers there may be scattered around Oxford.

Ll. (aged 51)

Some more images:


Frewin Hall pre-renovation, from the Illustrated London News (1859)


A drawing by Thomas Jackson of his proposed alterations


Unconscionable misinformation on the wall of the present-day Frewin Hall


Carola Oman and her dog Patch in front of Shadwell’s chronogram