Musical chairs

It was a very sad day in the Anderson Room on the 26th April 2017 when we bade farewell to our comfy blue chairs that have been part of the Anderson Room at the UL since at least 1935. The chairs have supported many a reader over the last 80+ years, but the pressure has become too much for their sycamore legs. As part of the original fittings of the building, they will be preserved in another part of the UL, somewhere that hopefully is less stressful for them. So, what sights have these chairs seen since they arrived here in the 1930’s, and how did they come to be in the Anderson Room?

The Reading Room in 1934. Spot the similar chairs.

It appears that the chairs were commissioned at the time of the building of the library, with similar chairs in all the reading rooms, though different colours in each – the Manuscripts and Early Printed Books Room (also known as the Anderson Room) was a natty shade of blue, while the Reading Room was, I believe, brown. The Anderson Room chairs were some of the few survivors of that original group. There are more early photos of the Anderson Room (and other incarnations of the University Library) on RIBA’s website.

The room itself was named after Sir Hugh Kerr Anderson, master of Gonville and Caius College from 1912 – 1928, who is considered to be one of the central figures in the making of the new Library. (Anderson’s portrait can still be seen in the Anderson room, as well as here). It was largely owing to Anderson’s determination that, in the face of much opposition, the University Library was relocated from its increasingly impractical location in the Old Schools to its current site west of the river. He managed to secure £250,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation – an enormous sum then which totalled around 50% of the estimated cost of building the Library. Sadly Anderson died in 1928, so was unable to see the opening of the new building, of which he would undoubtedly have been so proud.

Escaping the Anderson Room?
The chairs off to their retirement quarters in the UL.
Photo courtesy of Sarah Chapman

Suggestions were made soon after his death that some part of the new Library should bear his name and in May 1933 the Regent House approved a proposal that the special reading room for manuscripts and early printed books should be known as the Anderson Room. (For more on Sir Hugh Kerr Anderson’s contribution to the building of the UL, see volume 4 of History of the University of Cambridge, 1870-1990 / Christopher Brooke. This can be found in the Reading Room, classmark R241.1).

I like to think that Anderson would probably have approved of the Music Department latterly occupying the room named after him. He was a treasurer of Gonville and Caius Music Society, and there’s another tenuous musical connection, as he appears in the film Chariots of Fire (the title is almost certainly most recognised as a quote from Parry’s Jerusalem), where he was played by Lindsay Anderson (no relation).

Tonic Sol-fa, hand signals, and The Sound of Music.

Over the years many a famous name has used the Anderson Room:- George V and Queen Mary viewed a display of precious books in the Anderson Room following the official opening. And since then – romance has blossomed, a gunshot has been heard (to read more about the perils of the UL in wartime see John Dreyfus’ article The shooting affair at Cambridge University Library in Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, vol. 7, no. 3 (1979), pp. 391-393), and selections from The Sound of Music have been sung by excited children.

Many a scholar has snoozed (we’ve even had the occasional snorer), one reader was haunted by the angelic voices of the University Library Choir in rehearsal, while another was reunited with the book that he’d left in the Anderson Room more than thirty years earlier, and had believed lost forever.

The room has been called “Cambridge’s most elegant sauna” (our heating system is occasionally seasonally challenged) by a biographer, who used the room extensively one summer; while an American crime novelist of the 1980’s compared the Anderson Room unfavourably with the Rare Books Room at the Bodleian:-

…The Anderson Room, an uninspiring oblong, is furnished with sturdy, utilitarian, and unlovely [this blogger disagrees] tables and chairs constructed of yellow oak [sycamore!]….Indeed, a scholar in the Anderson Room is apt to incur a case of the aesthetic and intellectual bends.

Academic murder / Dorsey Fiske. New York : St. Martin’s, 1980.

But generations of scholars have enjoyed the ambience of the room, and the helpful and (usually) cheery staff. As Christopher Brooke says “I can only add that for nearly fifty years – for me as a scholar – it has been paradise.” 

Happy retirement chairs. You’ve served us well!



About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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1 Response to Musical chairs

  1. Pingback: Holidays | MusiCB3 Blog

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