We owe the most charming and engaging account of Cambridge society to Gwen Raverat. In her Period Piece: a Cambridge childhood she describes affectionately her corner of Cambridge around 1900: life in Newnham Grange as the daughter of a noted academic, and the formalities and eccentricities of Cambridge society and of the Darwin family. Her father was George Darwin, second son of Charles Darwin, fellow of Trinity College, and Professor of Astronomy. Her mother Maud was from America.

George Darwin and his brothers belonged to the first generation of college fellows who were permitted to marry while retaining their fellowships, thus giving rise to a whole new section of Cambridge society: the academic family. George Darwin bought the house in Silver Street, which formerly belonged to the Beale family, proprietors of a corn and coal business on the river. He renamed it Newnham Grange and amongst other alterations added the distinctive bay windows to the front. His brothers Francis and Horace also settled in Cambridge, on the Huntingdon Road, and their families were part of the world described by Gwen Raverat.

She and her brothers and sister would play on the river outside their house, be taken on excursions up-river past the bathing places where boys bathed naked and women in rowing boats had to bury their eyes in their parasols. They rode early bicycles and tricycles, and saw the crossing sweepers who swept the roads so that gentlefolk could cross with clean shoes. They observed the formalities of Victorian society with the penetrating eyes of children, and that clear-eyed vision is set before us in Period Piece.

Gwen drew and painted from childhood, keeping a little sketchbook in her pocket, and studying any reproductions of artists that came her way. Rembrandt and Bewick (the engraver) enthralled her. After a conventional education she persuaded her family to let her go to London to study at the Slade School of Art. Here she developed her interest in woodcuts and wood-engraving, at the time, neglected art forms, and in a few years she became one of the founding members of the Society of Wood-Engravers.

Her circle of Cambridge friends included the Keyneses, Rupert Brooke and others with literary and artistic interests. In this group she met Jacques Raverat, also developing as an artist, whom she married in 1911. They worked, separately and together, on paintings and Gwen’s woodcuts. Their two daughters were both born in Newnham Grange.

Jacques’ illness (undiagnosed multiple sclerosis) became more severe, and they moved to the south of France, continuing to paint as much as they could. Gwen, with great fortitude, nursed her husband through the traumatic last stages of his illness to his death in 1925. Afterwards, she returned to England and from 1929 lived in Harlton, just six miles from Cambridge. From there she could resume her Cambridge connections, while continuing to work. Her reputation grew steadily as she exhibited work in Cambridge and London and produced illustrations and revues for Time and Tide.

She was commissioned to illustrate a variety of books, but also painted and undertook some scene painting for the ADC theatre. At the instigation of Geoffrey Keynes, her brother-in-law, she designed sets and costumes based on the work of William Blake for a ballet (ultimately called Job, a Masque for Dancing) for which her cousin Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote the music and Maynard Keynes financed London performances.

In the Second World War she worked briefly at the Cambridge Instrument Factory (founded by her uncle Horace) but then found greater use for her talents in drawing interpretations of coasts and landscapes for use by the Navy. In 1946 she returned to her childhood home. The old granary in whose empty lofts she had played as a child had been converted to flats, but her move was delayed by the reluctance of another Cambridge notable, Henry Morris (Education chief and founder of the Village Colleges, blue plaque on the Granary), to move out of this picturesque residence. Gwen finally moved in, next door to her brother Sir Charles, who had inherited the main house.

In 1950 - 51 she wrote Period Piece, recording the charm and eccentricities of the Darwin family and the conventions and customs of her youth, which even in 1950 seemed to belong to a lost world, wiped out by two world wars. The drawings that illustrate it, though seemingly very simple, capture and convey the mood she describes. Her book was an immediate success, has gone through many, many printings and is as popular as ever.

Although suffering the effects of a stroke in 1951, Gwen continued to paint, and was a familiar figure in the neighbourhood. She would sit out in the nearby commons; painting the scenes she had known since childhood. She died in 1957 and was buried beside her parents in the Trumpington Extension Cemetery.

Her brother Charles died in 1962, ending the Darwin family’s occupation of Newnham Grange. Not long afterwards, the bursars of three Cambridge colleges, sharing a train journey to London, came up with the idea of creating a new graduate college, and set about acquiring Newnham Grange to house it. Darwin College was formally incorporated in 1965.