Peter Scupham at Eighty

Draft of Scupham's poem ‘Out of Season’

A draft of Scupham’s poem ‘Out of Season’, from MS Add. 9941.

The new exhibition in the North Front Corridor celebrates the eightieth birthday of the distinguished poet Peter Scupham.

Born in Bootle in 1933, Scupham read English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. While working as a schoolteacher, and later in semi-retirement as a bookseller, Scupham has produced eleven full-length collections of poetry in addition to volumes of Selected and Collected poems. His formal and technically adroit poems have been seen as continuing the tradition of Hardy, Frost and Edward Thomas; childhood, England, ghosts and war are among his typical themes. He has written that he would like his poems ‘to be windows not mirrors…. A window cuts a shape, and I am fascinated by structure, harmony, balance – all those qualities which give definition to the view’. He received a Cholmondeley Award in 1996 and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

The exhibition draws both on the wide range of Scupham’s printed works and on a collection of his literary and personal papers donated to the University Library in 2011. It traces Scupham’s career from his prep-school days at the Perse in Cambridge, through National Service in the early 1950s, and on into his long literary career, from early periodical and small-press publications to full-length collections from Oxford University Press and Carcanet.

A number of Scupham’s poems have been published in books or pamphlets issued by fine press printers, and the exhibition features a comprehensive set of these, from the 1978 Natura, designed by Karl Kimber Merker and printed at the University of Iowa’s Windhover Press (our copy is one of half of the print-run published in England by Anthony Baker’s Gruffyground Press), to Out of Season, designed and printed by Sebastian Carter of the Rampant Lions Press on Hodgkinson handmade paper, and published by Mark Askam at the Chestnut Press, Hitchin, in 2008 (a facsimile of a draft of the poem ‘Out of Season’ is also on show in the exhibition). ‘The Gatehouse’ (1979) is one of five poems, each by a different poet and paired with an image by a different artist, published in a portfolio as The Transparent Room by the Starwheel Press, founded in 1976 by Clarissa Upchurch and George Szirtes. Writing in 1982, Szirtes explained that their philosophy was not to ‘encourage the illustration of particular lines of a poem’ but allow ‘picture and poem to meet as independent equals’, and the image chosen to accompany Scupham’s poem was by Upchurch herself. Under the Barrage, published by the Bonnefant Press in Banholt, Holland, in 1988, brought together a number of Scupham’s poems on war and childhood, with a woodcut frontispiece by Rigby Graham, an artist who had been illustrating Scupham’s poems since the early 1970s.

One display case is devoted to Scupham’s own work as a printer and publisher of poetry. In 1972, together with John Mole and Roger Burford Mason, Scupham edited a series of ‘Cellar Press Poems’, each featuring a single poem with an accompanying illustration. From 1974 onwards, he and Mole began to use a 1930s machine press, a flatbed press and a small treadle press to issue editions under the Mandeville imprint, named after the supposed medieval traveller. Their aim was to publish work they admired in inexpensive editions: as Scupham later explained in an interview, ‘We reckoned to be tidy and clean printers of good quality pamphlets on laid paper, sewn rather than stapled … but we never set out to be a fine press.’ Mandeville Press publications on display include Anthony Hechts’s A Love for Four Voices: Homage to Franz Joseph Haydn (1983), Mandeville’s Bestiary, an anthology of poems on animal themes produced in 1985, and a late production of the press, a collection of the poems of James Graham, first Marquis of Montrose, edited by Robin Graham Bell and printed using the more modern technology of offset litho in 1990.

On Thursday 23 May, at 5.00 p.m., in the Milstein Seminar Room, to mark the launch of the re-issue of his Collected Poems (Carcanet Press), Scupham will give a talk and reading from his work, focussing on the ways in which Cambridge and its locality have featured in his poetry over the course of four decades, from poems based on the surviving letters and diaries of a German-born academic family at the time of the First World War, through scenes of his Harston upbringing in ‘A Wartime Childhood’, to evocations of undergraduate life reading English in the 1950s from the recent poem-sequence ‘Playtime in a Cold City’. This event forms part of the programme of the Friends of the Library, and all are welcome: Friends £2.50, others £3.50, students free.

Peter Scupham at Eighty runs in the Library’s North Front Corridor until Saturday 22 June, during normal Library opening hours. Members of the University holding a Library reader’s card are welcome to bring up to two visitors at a time to see the exhibition. Members of the public who do not hold a Library reader’s card may be able to make an appointment with the curator to gain access to the exhibition area. For further information contact John Wells (e-mail:, telephone: 01223 333055).

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