What follows is sheer speculation, but I should start with an explanation.
Last summer I went with my family to Deal in Kent for a week, and one day, intrigued by theories about Julius Caesar’s landing place in 55 and 54 BC, as one is bound to be, I took a long walk down the coast from Deal to within sight of the White Cliffs at Kingsdown.
In Kingsdown I found myself walking past something fine and unexpected, a beautifully presented Edwardian house by the sea with a Latin text carved in its façade.
The text reads si mea laeta placet casa tu precor hospes adesto, or with punctuation, si mea laeta placet casa, tu, precor, hospes, adesto; in English literally, “If my happy cottage is pleasing, do, I pray, stranger, be here”, or more fluently, “If you like my cheerful cottage, stranger, do please come in.” You may notice, though, that some of the letters are larger than others (I pick them out in bold): SI MEA LAETA PLACET CASA TV PRECOR HOSPES ADESTO. These larger letters, understood as Roman numerals, add up (I + V + L + L + C + C + C + D + M) to 1906, apparently the date when the house was constructed. In other words, it’s a chronogram, about which I blogged here, while here I pondered a connection between this chronogram in Deal and the examples from Oxford (including my own college, Brasenose) that I’d discussed in that blog. I so pondered because this example in Deal is a great piece of work, the nicest I’ve seen. Like the chronogram at Brasenose it is in verse, a dactylic hexameter, and it would be an extremely elegant composition even if it weren’t also a dating formula.
Well, I did some rapid research on the internet yesterday, and I started with one slighter stronger assumption, and one decidedly weak. The strong one is that chronograms of this quality are not easy to produce and are thus likely to be the work of a limited number of people. The weak is the one I’ve mentioned: given that I’ve identified two chronograms in Oxford, one on the façade of Frewin Hall from 1888 and another on the front of the Rhodes Building from 1911, as the work of Charles Shadwell, Fellow and later Provost of Oriel College, Oxford, I suspected that this example might have something to do with him too.
What I established yesterday was that in 1963, in the will of Alan Bruce Blaxland, the house bearing the chronogram, named “Pleasaunce” (a name alluded to in PLACET), was given as his residence at the time of his death. Alan Bruce Blaxland C.B. O.B.E. had been a senior officer in the British Indian Army during the Second World War, his most controversial role perhaps coming after the war when he chaired the court-martials of men who had joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army: he died on September 2, 1963 in the Victoria Hospital, Deal, at the age of 71.
In the 1901 and 1911 censuses we find Alan Bruce Blaxland at the ages of 8 and 18 at home with his family, two further brothers and two sisters, his mother Constance and father Bruce, a Church of England clergyman. In 1901 Bruce Blaxland was vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Lilleshall, Shropshire, and in 1911 of the Abbey Church in Shewsbury.
And it’s with Bruce that I start to indulge in wild speculation. The first step is the observation that both Bruce and Constance were from east Kent, Bruce from Canterbury, and Constance from Eastry, which is just a few miles from Kingsdown — my guess is that the house Alan Bruce Blaxland was living in in 1963 was built by his parents as a holiday home back where they spent their childhoods. The next step, and the ice gets less and less secure the further out I venture, involves the Revd. Bruce Blaxland’s education, since according to this very comprehensive account of his career (and I’ve checked out some of the relevant details in The Times archive), he studied Modern History at Oriel College, Oxford from 1879 to 1882, achieving a First Class degree.
This was, needless to say, precisely when Charles Shadwell was a fellow of Oriel, with his hobbies (as listed in Who’s Who) of “punting, billiards, chess problems, chronograms”. (One can read Walter Pater’s essay Diaphaneité, which describes an ideal personality, living a “purity of life”, modelled on his friend Charles Shadwell, and wonder about those recreations.) From 1874 to 1887, Shadwell, a man devoted to his college, was treasurer of the college, and from 1905 to 1914 its head. In between he lived at Frewin Hall, Oxford, carried out extensive renovations, and popped a Latin, hexametrical chronogram over the front door. I can think of any number of ways by which Blaxland and Shadwell might have become acquainted, and I’m obviously imagining that either Bruce Blaxland got into chronography himself when an undergraduate, inspired by Shadwell (in which case he was an excellent pupil), or (and I think this more likely) Blaxland requested a chronogram from Shadwell at a later date. The coincidence of an Oriel connection just seems too great to me otherwise.
Anyhow, it’s my blog, and I can speculate as much as I like.