7 January 2016
Dr Henry Hardy holding a postcard created by Isaiah Berlin of himself as an undergraduate at a room in Corpus Christi College, where he matriculated in 1928
By Dr Richard Lofthouse
Today I met Dr Henry Hardy, who as the central editor of the writings of historian, linguist and philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) knows more about this particular Oxford superstar than anyone else alive. Accompanied by the infinitely helpful Domestic Bursar Andy Rolfe, we trotted around Corpus Christi College with a single photo of Berlin as an undergraduate sitting at a desk, with an imposing book shelf behind him to the right; wood paneling to the left, and a source of light from the right.
This may have been 'Annex 5' in the Jackson Building in Merton Street, where Berlin stayed as a fresher.
The Corpus archivist had given us a list of known rooms, beginning in 1928, the year of Berlin’s matriculation, with Annexe 5, Jackson Building (corner Magpie Lane and Merton Street). The building is being renovated so we had to don hard hats and wear safety vests. The photo bore no relation and we could not be sure which room was Room 5, but it almost certainly overlooked Merton Street and the original fireplace, beautifully preserved, could be imagined glowing with warm coals while Berlin voraciously read copies of his beloved Turgenev.
Corpus Domestic Bursar Andy Rolfe studies the image with Dr Henry Hardy
We went over to Staircase XII, to look for ‘R1’. After a nearly exhaustive search of the current SCR Dining Room, a study and the Fellows Guest Room, we ended up concluding that very possibly Berlin may have inhabited a particular part of today’s SCR. The paneling matches; the book shelf could have been in place; and the slightly difficult to read perspective of the paneling on the left might have been a shuttered window, which would have accentuated the light source to the right that makes the photograph a success. It’s inconclusive but a compelling theory. The circumstances of the photograph support the notion that Berlin would have gone to some trouble. While he appears the insouciant undergraduate, the photograph is in fact a postcard that had been mailed to a friend. It was not uncommon to have a favourite photo made up into a post card if you were well off. Berlin was well off.
The nearest possibility we found for Berlin's second and third year accommodation, is today part of the Corpus SCR
Finally, I shot over on my bicycle to find 46 Wellington Square before darkness fell, it being late November. On the approach to the actual Square, from the south, you encounter on the left a long terrace of 19th century gothic town houses, all joined up today to comprise the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages. The entrance to Number 46 has been bricked up, and you can see the younger bricks very clearly. The same at Number 45, and so on. We have no idea which room Berlin would have stayed in, but as an accomplished translator he would have been delighted to know that it was now housing the faculty library, which sprawls across the ground floor and beams a warm glow onto the cold street.
Berlin's fourth year (on account of his switching degree) was lived at 46 Wellington Square. The entrance has clearly been bricked up, and again at what was formerly Number 45, on the right. They are all now part of the Department of Medieval and Modern Languages, the entrance here on the left, Number 47.
Why does any of this matter, you might ask? Treasure hunts have meaning in themselves because they’re fun. But the broader point must be that the number of people who knew Berlin very well is fading with the passage of time, and 1928 how seems very distant. Berlin died in 1997. It’s not necessarily about plastering walls with memorial plaques. But then again, what undergraduate wouldn’t be inspired to learn that they were treading in the footsteps of genius? It’s a shame that in the case of the first room, the sole room that Berlin lived in that continues to function as undergraduate accommodation, we can’t nail down the mystery and mark the occasion. That would be wonderful.
Images © Richard Lofthouse/Oxford University Images