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A rainbow round their shoulders

20 October 2010

Garry Humphreys had academical fun with the Burgon Society


A TENTH ANNIVERSARY was celebrated at Charterhouse, in the City of London, earlier this month. The Burgon Society was founded in 2000 to promote the use and study of academical dress, and is named after John William Burgon, the 19th-century Dean of Chichester whose name is used for a particular shape of hood, most familiarly the Oxford MA.

The Society is flourishing, with more than 150 members. Ten years of serious research and education in the subject has been recognised by its recently awarded charitable status. Since 2001, annual trans­actions have been published contain­ing scholarly articles, many of them deriving from research undertaken by members to achieve the Fellow­ship of the Burgon Society — whose hood is, of course, of the Burgon shape.

The Society also records and documents academical dress, and will shortly be publishing the new (third) edition of Dr George W. Shaw’s Academical Dress of British and Irish Universities. A “hood-spotter’s guide”, in its fourth edition, is by Nick Groves, who is also one of the compilers of several of the Society’s smaller guides relating to particular universities and specific areas such as the hoods of music and theological colleges. Groves is responsible for expanding and de­veloping the standard terminology used by Shaw to describe academic robes.

The Society’s “wardrobe” has recently been relocated to Charter­house, where it is being catalogued and photographed. This collection — of gowns, hoods, and headgear — has been built up from purchases and donations, many of which can be viewed on the Society’s website. A fascinating selection, including some items of great historic interest, was shown at the birthday celebra­tions, together with an interactive display of robes and their antecedents.

Members very often admit that their interest began at school — at a time when gowns were worn daily by teachers — and this may suggest a peculiarly British, male obsession, perhaps comparable to trains­potting. But several members (including Council members) originate from overseas; there are a significant number of women (including three Fellows); and subjects for study and research are international. One of the afternoon talks at Charterhouse was about Spanish academical dress, by Jerónimo Hernández de Castro, of the University of Salamanca, and a new Honorary Fellow is Professor Yves Mausen, of the University of Montpellier, who has written about ecclesiastical influences on French academical dress.

As for the putative trainspotters: the Dean of St Paul’s and Professor Graham Zellick were inducted as additional patrons of the Society, to join the Bishop of London and the Master of Charterhouse. The presi­dent is Dr John Birch, the former organist of Chichester Cathedral. The profile is high.

Despite all this seriousness, a vein of humour runs through many of the proceedings, as when the Revd Philip Goff — one of the Society’s founders — in presenting the Dean of St Paul’s, recalled their student days together, when the Dean ap­parently exhibited a remarkable talent for making startlingly lifelike Plasticine models of Church of England worthies of the time. I’m sure I was not alone in wondering whether these effigies still exist — and is he still making them?

Because of the number of people present this time, there was no formal group photograph — which in the past has included a version in which members stand with their backs to the camera in order to display their hoods.

Nevertheless, this tenth-anniversary gathering was a con­vivial occasion in a wonderful setting — how lucky the Society is to have Charterhouse as its regular meeting place — and there seems to be little danger of its activities’ diminishing while members con­tinue to find so many topics for research or for mere curiosity in this rich field.


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