A Jewel in Oxford’s Crown

Gilbert Sheldon, The Archbishop of Canterbury commissioned Christopher Wren to create a suitably spectacular building to hold the Acts of Graduation, that were usually held in St Mary’s Church. It was William Laud who originally voiced the idea of a secular building for university ceremonies. Sheldon resurrected the idea when he succeeded to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury in 1663. Sheldon gave £1,000 to open the proceedings and construction started in 1664, taking five years to complete. He had hoped to gather sponsors for the enterprise, but unfortunately he was unsuccessful and went on to personally contribute most of the funds. It was originally built to provide a venue for public ceremonies and to house the university printing press. In 1713 Oxford University Press moved to the Clarendon Building.

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The Sheldonian Theatre

This was Wren’s second major commission; the first was the chapel at Pembroke College, Cambridge. The theatre was designed to provide the maximum internal space. The roof spanned a 21.35 metres by 24.38 metres auditorium without supporting columns. He used five oak trusses to span the roof; each truss consisted of seven interlocking timbers held together by scarf-joints, bolts and plates, and supported by three posts. The work to construct this amazing roof was undertaken by master-carpenter Richard Frogley, who was regularly employed by the university.  The original roof had oval dormer windows, which can be seen in the early engravings. These were removed in 1801 when George Saunders rebuilt the roof. Wren’s central cupola was replaced in 1838 with a much larger one designed by Edward Blore.

Thomas Robinson the master-mason who built the theatre to Wren’s design, employed his three sons and several other families. He used locally sourced limestone from Headington, Burford, and Barrington quarries. Prior to the 18th century the Headington stone was used for most of the buildings in the city. Unfortunately it did not stand the test of time and weathered badly. During the 19th century sections of the exterior were refaced with Bath Stone on the east, west and north side; Clipsham was used for the bay on the south-west corner. In the 1950s urgent external work was necessary for repairing the stonework; including rebuilding the parapet and balustrade.

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The Boundary Wall 

The original fourteen Termains (Terminus was the Roman God of boundaries), which surround the theatre were designed by Wren and carved by William Byrd, a mason and stonecutter. They were carved in limestone from the Headington Quarry located to the east of Oxford. It is now a residential and conservation area. Not long after their completion one was removed to make way for the construction of the Clarendon Building.

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A Clipsham limestone Termain

The stone deteriorated and the thirteen heads were replaced in 1868, unfortunately the poor quality replacements lost their facial details. Between 1970 and 1972 sculptor Michael Black together with two assistants, carved a third set of busts from Lincolnshire Clipsham limestone.

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Ceiling Fresco

The ceiling fresco is an early example of English illusionist decoration, and consists of thirty two oil on canvas panels painted by Robert Streater, Serjeant Painter to Charles II. Each painting is bordered by gilded cords in homage to the classical architecture of Roman. The fresco depicts Truth descending upon the Arts and Sciences and expelling Ignorance from the university. In 2004 the fresco was removed for restoration, which took four years. The frescos have been repaired or restored on three previous occasions by Tilly Kettle (1762), William Delamotte (1802), and in 1826. The villainous figure of Ignorance was obscured when the organ housing was installed in 1876.

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Sir Thomas Jackson’s organ housing dating from 1876

 

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The Vice-Chancellor’s Throne, the work of Richard Cleer

The interior woodwork and staircases were the work of Richard and Arthur Frogley. The elaborate wainscotting and woodcarving were undertaken by William and Richard Cleer in London, and transported to Oxford by barge.

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The Provost’s Rostrum, the work of Richard Cleer

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Interior set up for a concert

In the 1930s steel supports were inserted into the timber galleries around the auditorium. The first electrical power and lighting was also introduced during this period. It was later updated in the 1960s when the Georgian sash windows were replaced with oak windows similar to Wren’s original design. In 2010 the lighting was improved and the interior received a new paint scheme to restore Wren’s original design.

The Grade I listed Sheldonian Theatre is now an important venue for concerts and lectures, as well as fulfilling its original purpose as a secular building for university ceremonies.

 

The photos are from the author’s own collection.

 

An Oasis of Calm

Nestling amongst the angular shapes of 20th century architecture is a haven of peace   brought about by war.

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Temple Church

“The City of Churches had in one night become the city of ruins.”

Lord Mayor, Alderman Thomas Underwood

During World War II Bristol become a target for the Luftwaffe. As one of the main ports with rail connections and an important industrial centre it was the victim of six major bombing raids between the 24th November 1940 and 11th April 1941. 89,080 buildings were damaged or destroyed, 1,299 people were killed and 1,303 were seriously injured.

On Sunday 24th November 1940, 148 aircraft of the Luftwaffe left Northern France en route for the city docks and the aeroplane factory. 135 aircraft reached Bristol dropping 156,250 kg of high explosive bombs, 4,750 kg oil bombs and 12,500 incendiaries. The Mediaeval centre was the victim of this six hour raid, four ancient churches were reduced to ruins, including the Temple Church.

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View from Temple Gardens

In the 1130s the Order of the Knights Templar, a monastic order founded for the protection of pilgrims while on route to Jerusalem, built a monastery in Bristol on land donated by Robert, Earl of Gloucester. The Templars built their churches round in homage to the church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is located in the Old City of Jerusalem. Though round church architecture was not unique to Templars. The Round Church in Bristol was known as the Holy Cross and the capital for the Order in the South West.

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Excavated foundation location of the original 12th century Rotunda

During the Crusades the Templars travelled from Bristol to Europe and the Mediterranean as financiers, entrepreneurs and military. The church was enlarged and the area was an important business centre for the woollen trade. By the early 14th century the Knights Templar had lost their reputation and fallen out of favour. In 1313 the Holy Cross Church was transferred to the Knights Hospitaller, another military order. They carried out new building work on the church, transforming it into a rectangular church and adding two rectangular chapels. St Nicholas on the South side and St Catherine on the North side. It was Edward I who granted the Bristol Company of Weavers their own chapel in the Temple Church, St Catherine is the patron saint of weavers. St Catherine was also a saint venerated by the Templars.

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The first three stages of the bell tower were built in the late 1390s but unfortunately it began to lean westwards, due to the alluvial clay subsoil, as a result work stopped. In 1460 the stone masons strengthened the foundations and completed the final stage, allowing for the lean so that it would appear vertical. Their work has proved to be unsuccessful and the tower leans 1.6 meters from the vertical.

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View the of the leaning tower and the Portland stone Gothic Revival archway  located on Temple Street off of Victoria Street 

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 Rear view of the Portland stone Gothic Revival archway

The porch of the church can be found via a grade II listed Portland Stone Gothic Revival archway, with a pair of wrought iron gates in the wider central arch. Above the centre arch is a carving of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, on a shield hanging from a ring. This visual imagery denotes a past connection to both military orders.

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An octagonal stair turret on the left between the north aisle and the nave, extending up behind the round-arched doorway 

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Mid-Georgian porch to the nave with Corinthian pilasters. Round-arched doorway with an acanthus key

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Above the Corinthian pilasters is a segmental pediments with a cartouche inside and an urn on the top

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Decorated traceried windows in the long Chancel with the St Catherine’s chapel to right and St Nicholas to the left

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The embattled south aisle with large early perpendicular windows

The church was built of Pennant rubble, a native stone of the Bristol area. The exterior walls are dressed with Bath stone ashlar and is now preserved as an open shell; the roof and the glass perished in the Blitz. The only relics savaged from the ruins were a medieval candelabrum, one of only fifteen surviving from this period. It now resides in the Berkeley Chapel Bristol Cathedral. The font and a 15th century bell are located at the Holy Cross Church (21st C) Filwood Park Bristol. The 18th century Sword-Rest and the wrought-iron parclose screens from the side chapels can be found in the Lord Mayor’s chapel of St Mark’s Hospital Church Bristol. These items were made by William Edney the renowned Bristol blacksmith, his work can also be seen in St Mary Redcliffe.

The Temple Church was the first parish church to be owned by the Ministry of Works as an Ancient Monument and listed as Grade II*. The management of the church was transferred to English Heritage in 1984. The churchyard was given to the City of  Bristol as a public park in 1955. It contains the remnants of a lime tree avenue, which was planted in the 18th century when the church was refurbished. The Temple Gardens with its roses and trees is an oasis of calm to escape the busy city.

 

The photos and artwork are from the author’s own collection.

 

 

 

 

 

A Church with Literary Links

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St Pancras Old Church

Not far from the hubbub of the Euston Road located just beyond St Pancras International Station is an architectural gem, which transcends the ages. The origins of the site are believed to date back possibly to 313 or 314 AD, as a place of worship to honour the death of St Pancras, a fourteen year old who was executed by Diocletian in Rome 304 AD. The first recorded mention of the church is in the Domesday Book, and as the years passed more documented evidence was accumulated to testify to its history as a site of worship, and from the 12th century there is a full list of Priests who administered to the needs of the local parishioners.

The church became disused when St Pancras New Church was consecrated in 1822. The church became derelict and was rebuilt in a Norman style during the late 1840s by a local born architect Alexander Dick Gough. Gough with his partner Robert Lewis Roumieu, designed schools, churches and residences in Islington. They also undertook surveys in the Southwest and West for the railway. When the partnership dissolved he built and restored churches, as well as designing schools. The church has undergone a number of restorations over the years especially in 1948 due to war damage.

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Church Interior

The Neo-Romanesque exterior encapsulates a whitewashed interior made up of Roman tiles, a Norman wall and window, and a eleventh century altar stone. These perfect white walls enhance the memorials, which date from the 17th century and later, giving the impression of a tasteful and respectful art gallery.

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The Hardy Tree

Stranger than fiction is The Hardy Tree, an ash tree surrounded by gravestones. The tree and the gravestones have become one entity, strange and beautiful in a weird way. It was created by Thomas Hardy, a young assistant architect working in the practice of Arthur Blomfield. Hardy was given the task of excavating and exhuming the bodies in St Pancras Old Church’s graveyard, ready for the building of the new terminus for the Midland Railway at St Pancras. When the job was complete he was left with several gravestones, which he decided to arrange round the ash tree. A permanent monument to his early career as an architect. Hardy eventually left London and returned to the Southwest to pursue a career in writing which proved to be more successful.

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Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s Tombstone

There is a large square grey block of stone that was originally located in a different part of the churchyard. It was erected by William Godwin, the political philosopher and novelist for his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Mary was a writer, philosopher and an influential advocate of Women’s Rights. She was read by and influenced the writings of among others Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Elliot and Virginia Woolf. She is mostly remembered for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and for being the mother of Mary Shelley. Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were married at Old St Pancras Church on 29 March 1797. They both did not believe in the principles of marriage but agreed to marry as she was pregnant at the time. She already had an illegitimate daughter by a liaison with Gilbert Imlay. On the 30 August 1797 after a difficult labour Mary gave birth to a daughter, ten days later she died of septicaemia due to complications of the birth. The baby was given the name Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and was baptised on 12 February 1798 at the family church. The years passed and she would visit the grave and it was here that she would rendezvous with Percy Bysshe Shelley. A month after declaring her undying love for Shelley, at her mother’s tomb, she ran away with him to the continent. Mary Shelley had wished to be buried with her parents, but as the graveyard was neglected her son Percy Florence Shelley and her daughter-in-law Jane choose to bury her at St Peter’s Church Bournemouth, near their home at Boscombe Manor. Out of love for Mary they exhumed her parents and reburied them with her.

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Mr William Jones The Sadistic Schoolmaster

Charles Dickens also has strong links to the site, during his childhood he lived in various locations in the Parish. There is a gravestone for a Mr William Jones, a schoolmaster Wellington House Classical and Commercial Academy Hampstead Road. Dickens attended this school at the age of 13 leaving after two years. Jones provided the inspiration for the sadistic schoolmaster, Mr Creakle of Salem House in David Copperfield and some of his other publications. Dickens also used the site for the grave robbers in his novel A Tale of Two Cities. The Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial was unveiled by Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts who was a Victorian philanthropist who worked to rid London of its slums and was a close friend of Dickens.

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“Melancholy day indeed! The burial of all that is dear to me in this world and all I wished to live for.” Sir John Soane

On the 22 November 1815 Elizabeth Soane died and was buried in St Pancras’s graveyard, her husband the renowned architect Sir John Soane was devastated. He designed a monument to her memory covered with symbols of eternity and regeneration. The central Carrara marble cube is enclosed by a Carrara marble canopy supported on four Ionic columns, surrounding this structure is a Portland Limestone balustrade with steps leading into the vault. A hundred years later this monument was influential for the K2 telephone box designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who was a trustee of the Sir John Soane’s Museum.

I am biased about this church as I have a strong link through my great grandparents who were married here in 1884. Walter was a printer originally from Somerset, and Susan was a milliner from Islington.

This little church has witnessed so many events, and the last resting place of significant people. It knows so many secrets and I am proud to say my family are part of it.

The photos are from the author’s own collection.

 

A Florence Literary Apartment

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Over the Ponte Vecchio on the south bank of the river Arno is the area of Oltrarno home to the Pitti Palace and its vast Medici collections. A short walk along via de’ Guicciardini, where the via Maggio and via Mazzetta meet is located the Casa Guidi, part of the Palazzo Guidi. The Palazzo was originally two separate houses dating from the 15th century built by the Ridolfi family. Count Camillo Guidi, a secretary of state for the Medici acquired one of the houses in 1618, and it was the Guidi family who amalgamated the two properties in the 18th Century and then divided the piano nobile into two apartments in the early 1840s. It was here that Elizabeth and Robert Browning lived for fourteen years producing some of their best works and their only son Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, who was known simply as Pen. So to combine the story of a literary couple eloping from a domineering father with the romance of Italy, surely it is a match made in Heaven.

The exterior of Casa Guidi is quite unassuming. Unless you knew its location or happened to look up above the large front door and see the stone tablet in Italian, you would be unawhere that this was the Browning home.

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Here wrote and died
Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
in whose womanly heart were
united profound learning and poetic genius;
and who by her verse wove a golden wreath
between Italy and England.
Florence, in gratitude,
placed this memorial here in 1861

 

In 1893 Pen bought the Palazzo in the hope of establishing a permanent memorial to his parents. Unfortunately he died in 1912, and his mother’s family, the Moulton-Barretts, and his widow sold all the furniture, books, letters and personal items by auction at Sotheby’s between the 1st and 8th May 1913. The Palazzo was sold to Ellen Centaro an American who wished to set up a Browning Foundation in the Casa Guidi. The Foundation was a failure, so it was rented out, becoming a linguistic club and very rundown. By 1969 Centaro’s family wanted to sell the apartments including Casa Guidi for office space. The Browning Society of New York launched an appeal to save Casa Guidi. It was successful and the newly formed Browning Institute took over its management in 1971, starting the initial work of restoration, to house a small collection of memorabilia, and open it to the public. It was Philip Kelley, editor of Elizabeth’s letters who approached Eton College who took over ownership and leased it to The Landmark Trust; together they carried on the work of restoring the property. It would become a cultural study centre eight weeks of the year for the students of Eton College, a holiday apartment at other times on the proviso that the property would be refurnished as it looked in the 1850s and remain open to the public. The four rooms are open to the public between April to November on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 3-6pm; there is no entrance fee but an opportunity to give a donation.

 

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Casa Guidi is a memorial to an important literary couple where you can be transported back in time, helped by the unaltered location.

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Renting the apartment gives people the unique experience of actually staying in the rooms where the Browning’s lived, to sleep in the bedroom where she gave birth to Pen and ultimately died. They are free to wander through the rooms, admire themselves in the Browning’s rococo cherub mirror, read the books in the large bookcase, sit at Robert’s desk soaking up the atmosphere and maybe become inspired to write. This is a very different museum.

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The painstaking research undertaken to reproduce the Browning home, using the 1861 drawing room painting by George Mignaty, Elizabeth’s letters and the 1913 auction catalogue, provides a tangible heritage, and an atmosphere to maintain the intangible memory of a family and their times.

The three interior photos are from commons.wikimedia.org., and the other photos are from the author’s own collection.