Distinguished groups in Bloomsbury before there was a Bloomsbury Group.
Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By EDWARD SHORT
Then, again, Ashton paints a vivid picture of Antonio Panizzi, an impecunious political exile from Modena who first gained a position teaching Italian at University College before rising to become the head librarian of the British Museum. Ashton relates the longstanding quarrel that Panizzi had with Thomas Carlyle, which began when the irascible historian asked the proud librarian to furnish him with “a quiet place to study . . . in your Establishment” while he was researching his life of Frederick the Great.
Panizzi’s response was unyielding:
This, as Ashton relates, was the exchange that inspired Panizzi to propose what would become the Round Reading Room. “Though others had already suggested ways of making use of the redundant inner courtyard of the new Museum building,” she writes, “Panizzi’s idea was enthusiastically taken up by the architect Sydney Smirke, and in January 1854 the Treasury approved his detailed plans and allotted £86,000 for the Reading Room’s construction.”
The presiding genius of the book, however, is Henry Brougham (1778-1868), the wily Scottish lawyer and politician who had a finger in nearly every reformist pie and helped to found not only University College but the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and the Edinburgh Review. Ashton quotes from a profile of Brougham in the Tory Morning Post that perfectly captures the affectionate distrust with which his contemporaries viewed the orator:
Ashton treats this impresario of rationalist reform with the critical sympathy he deserves (he still lacks a proper biography)—though she omits to call her readers’ attention to John Henry Newman’s satirical series of letters to the Times, which he later published as The Tamworth Reading Room (1841). In these letters, the leader of the Oxford Movement took Brougham to task for setting up a library from which all theology would be excluded and for insisting on the moral benefits of knowledge.
That A. C. Grayling, former professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, has recently established what he is calling the New College of the Humanities along Brougham’s exclusively secular lines demonstrates the extent to which age-old sophistry continues to beguile our own rationalists. One of the first to respond to Grayling’s call for teachers was the evangelical atheist Richard Dawkins.
With such talent in tow, the march-of-intellect proceeds apace.
Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Contemporaries and the forthcoming Newman and His Family.