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Hidden Places at Pembroke: the Yamada Room

At Pembroke, students are able to enjoy their essay crises and revision panics amidst the chapel-like calm and beautiful stained-glass windows of the Waterhouse Library, built in 1878. While the building is a regular haunt for most students, especially in exam term, there are some areas of the library which are much less frequented, one of them being the Yamada Room.

This small, secluded room is located in the Simon Gibson Wing, a modern extension to the library, which was completed in 2001. Earlier in the year, Kit Smart padded into the library to investigate the stained-glass windows, designed by German artist Hans von Stockhausen, which decorate the vestibule stairwell. These windows were inspired by two Pembroke botanists, Nehemiah Grew (1659) and William Turner (1526; he was in fact the first scientific student of botany and zoology in the country) and features illustrations and woodcuts from their work.

Continuing up the stairs, the entrance to the Yamada Room is guarded by a bronze relief of Ted Hughes, accompanied by a symbolic crow and pike, which was sculpted by the American artist Leonard Baskin in 1978. Baskin was a close friend of Hughes, having met him in 1958 when Hughes was teaching at the University of Massachusetts; they collaborated on Hughes’s famous works Pike and Crow, among others, with Baskin providing illustration and inspiration for Hughes’s poems.

On entering the Yamada Room, a peaceful, softly-lit space containing a round table and a portable whiteboard for supervisions, the eye is drawn to the bust of Akiyoshi Yamada, set high up in the triangular roofspace. Yamada was the founder of Nihon University in Tokyo and is commemorated in this room on account of Nihon’s generous contribution to the extension, and of its relationship and exchange programme with Pembroke.

The Yamada Room itself is dominated by further reference to Ted Hughes. Hans von Stockhausen, who was eighty-one years old when he accepted the commission, based the design of the Yamada Room’s stained-glass windows on poems by Ted Hughes. Focusing on his nature poetry, the row of six animal illustrations represents, from left to right, Hughes’s poems The Hare, Owl, The Mermaid’s Purse, Moose, Cock Crows and Ram, with some text from each poem placed beneath.

The top half of the window contains the text of six more poems, arranged in a ‘curtain of words’, as von Stockhausen described it. This ‘curtain’ includes words from The Thought-Fox, a poem about the process of writing a poem, which appeared in Hughes’s first collection, The Hawk in the Rain. A detail at the bottom of the fourth panel is also connected to this poem: a striking, and at first glance incongruous, blood-red handprint is splashed across the glass beneath the image of the moose. This handprint is inspired by the story behind The Thought-Fox. While reading English at Pembroke in the early 1950s, Hughes became disenchanted with academic study and felt his ambitions as a poet were being stifled. After attempting to complete an essay one night, he had a dream in which a large fox entered his room in Pembroke, placed its somehow human hand on the blank page of his essay, leaving a bloodstain, and instructed him, “Stop this – you are destroying us.” Hughes interpreted the dream as an indication that he was going against his own nature in attempting to pursue academic study; the bloody handprint was a sign of his inner pain.

‘… with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox,
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.’
– Ted Hughes, The Thought-Fox

To take a virtual tour of the Yamada Room, click here.

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