Monuments to Enterprise

In 1693 a man was born who would change the country’s postal service and create the City of Bath as we know it.

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Ralph Allen

Ralph Allen was from Cornwall and from a very early age he helped his grandmother run the St Columb’s post office. In 1708 he went to work for Joseph Quash, the Exeter post master. About a year later Quash was granted the contract to extend the cross post between Exeter and Oxford via Bath. When Mrs Mary Collins, the post mistress of Bath, resigned in 1712 over allegations of nepotism, Allen was appointed in her place. Allen built his reputation on hard work and honesty, gaining the friendship and backing of notable people. In 1715 Allen came across a Jacobite plot and informed General George Wade who successfully confiscated a shipment of arms and horse from the West. Wade built a house in Bath and was elected MP for Bath in 1722.

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General George Wade’s House with the later Regency Shop Front 

Wade’s house dates from about 1720 and is architecturally important as it is the first house in Bath to use the Palladian giant order. There is no documentary evidence as to who was the original architect, various names have been put forward such Thomas Greenway who was probably responsible for an adjoining property. Lord Burlington has also been mentioned simply because he designed Wade’s house in Cork Street London.

In 1718 the Countess of Kingston was granted the lease of the Post House in Lilliput Alley, on a property dating from c1620. Ralph Allen became the subtenant in the same year and ran his business from the building. In 1720 he successfully negotiated his first contract with the General Post Office for taking over the cross post between Exeter and Oxford and all bye-posts. The contracts were renewable every seven years, which he did up until his death. He completely reformed the postal service, opening up more routes, allowing mail to be delivered efficiently and securely throughout England, eventually without having to go via London. In the beginning he ran the business at a loss, but as time went on and he introduced his new methods he became a wealthy man.

Allen a young man with a head for business, created his own luck, he was the right person in the right place at the right time. He married his first wife in 1721, Elizabeth the daughter of a London merchant and his fortunes were on the rise. When Wade became MP, he was able to help Allen, as a result Allen became chief treasurer of the Avon Navigation Scheme in 1725. The scheme was to improve access between the Port of Bristol and Bath by deepening the river, bringing down the cost and ease of transporting goods. It would also provide an alternative means of transport for potential visitors to the spa resort, especially when the road system was dangerous and impassable at times. The same year saw him become freeman of the city and a member of the council.

Ralph Allen’s Town House

In 1722 Ralph Allen acquired the lease on the Post House in Lilliput Alley. He built a north wing, which was originally attached, at a right angle so its principal front faces east and overlooked a large garden. The new Palladian front contained a rusticated ground floor with a central wide arch with narrow arched openings on either side. Above this is a large central arched window with rectangular windows on either side there are blind balustrades at the base of each window. There are three smaller windows on the second floor, sandwiched by four columns with moulded bases on plain pedestals with Corinthian capitals. The steeply pitched triangular pediment is framed by a modillioned cornice with three acroterial ornaments of stone balls. The centre contains a small circular opening surrendered by elaborate scrolled foliage. From the windows he could view Claverton Down. There is a pen and ink 18th century drawing showing the town house as a U shaped mansion with wings on either side, this has been disputed for making the property grander and larger than it actually was. At a later date it was subdivided into three properties, the original Post House became 1 and 2 North Parade Passage; the detached north wing is now known as the Ralph Allen Town House.

In 1726 Allen bought land south of the River Avon, which included the Combe Down followed by Bathampton Down mines in 1727. These underground workings had been used since Roman times to extract Oolite limestone for building. The stone had to be mined rather than quarried, this hilly area around Bath was a mass of honeycombed excavations. The top layer of stone was suitable for paving and the Lower layers could be used for building, but the process was not straightforward. Though the stone is relatively easy to extract, because it is soft and can be sawn in any direction, it needs after care. The honey coloured stone must be allowed to mature in the open air for weeks so the water drains away. The stone dries out and becomes a pale white or grey colour. When building a wall the stone must be laid in the same position as it was extracted from the mine or otherwise it will crack and decay.

Allen experienced a very negative response to Bath stone when he tried to obtain the contract to supply building material for Greenwich Hospital in 1728. The Governors preferred the cheaper Portland Stone. To counteract this negativity he needed to undertake a large building project to show off the versatility of the stone closer to home.

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Principal Front of Prior Park

Prior Park was designed by John Wood the Elder based on designs by Andrea Palladio. The property would consist of a central house with wings on either side connected by arcades. The wings would be used for administration of his postal business and stables. The principal front is the north facade overlooking the park where the ground falls away down to lake. The Portico has six giant columns with an additional full column on either return and a half column against the building wall. The columns have moulded bases and the plain shafts are topped with Roman Corinthian capitals. These support an entablature with a triangular pediment. The balustrade on the parapet flanks either side of the triangular pediment and is above each window, which is segmented by a plain solid section.  The whole house would be used to publicise the wonders of Bath stone. Every Thursday afternoon he opened the grounds to the public to showcase the wonders of Bath Stone. The beautiful gardens were full of ornate features and statues as examples of the stones versatility.

Bath Stone can vary in type and from quarry to quarry, therefore the stone proved to be versatile. Once the Kennet and Avon canal was completed in November 1810, it enabled a more efficient and cost effective means of transporting the quarried stone to London. Its use for building in London and beyond became more wide spread.

Unfortunately Prior Park ended Allen and Wood’s friendship and working relationship. Wood’s design was in the style of a Palladian villa and based to some extent on Colen Campbell’s Wanstead House design, which appeared in Vitruvius Britannicus (1715), and was never built. Wood’s design was altered by Richard Jones the Clerk of Works, causing an argument between Wood and Allen, resulting in Wood’s dismissal. Jones completed to his own design the east wing as one pavilion instead of two, and completely changed the west wing’s intended appearance as a Palladian agricultural building.

Allen purchased the lower slopes in 1743 and created the lakes and Richard Jones built a Palladian Bridge in 1755. This is a copy of the bridge at Wilton Wiltshire designed by Robert Morris (1737), and to a lesser extent the bridge at Stowe in Aylesbury Vale Buckinghamshire attributed to James Gibbs (1738). The roofed bridge has two end pavilions with an open colonnade with four Ionic columns on either side. Unlike Wilton the width between the middle columns on either side is wider. Also the ceiling is plain plaster with a simple entablature, whereas Wilton’s ceiling is coffered and the entablature is carved.

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Palladian Bridge

The Open Colonnade and the Ionic Columns

In 1830 Prior Park became a Catholic College it has endured two fires, the first severely damaged the interior in 1836, which was rebuilt using the salvaged interior of Huntstrete House, Marksbury Somerset. The major damage to the building was a result of the 1991 fire. It started in the roof and the downward destruction eventually obliterated the roof, third floor and a majority of the second floor. Half of the first floor and two thirds of the ground floor survived. The massive work of reconstructing the building was undertaken and completed in 1995.

Prior Park college is a Catholic independent co-educational public school and the  28 acres of landscaped gardens and pleasure grounds have been the property of the National Trust since 1993.

Allen moved into Prior Park in 1735 living in one wing while the work progressed on the main block. Two years later he purchased Bathampton Manor the home of his second wife’s family, it became the residence of his brother Philip Allen (1694-1765). Later he built a house in Weymouth as a summer residence for his wife. The final edition to his property portfolio was Claverton Manor. Ralph Allen purchased Claverton Manor for £18,000 in 1752 as it adjoined Prior Park and consisted of 1300 acres, a great edition to his landscaped park. Though he did not live in the Elizabethan manor House he occasionally used it as a entertainment venue.

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The American Museum

In 1817 John Vivian, a barrister purchased the manor and built a large house above the village. This new Claverton Manor is now the American Museum. The original property was not maintained and ultimately demolished in 1823. The remains of the original manor house’s terrace garden is grade 11* listed. The lower terraces still retain the garden walls of pierced strap work stone, with two balustrades. There are gate piers with pierced stone obelisks and iron gates.

Pierced Strap Work Stone Wall

Pierced Stone Obelisks and Garden View

In 1764 Robert Parsons recorded in his commonplace book of a meeting with Ralph Allen to discuss designs for tombstones and memorials, the next day Allen died. It is believed that Allen’s mausoleum in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church Claverton is the work of Robert Parsons.

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St Mary’s Church Claverton 

Robert Parsons was a stonemason who made his living carving garden vases, ornaments and chimneys from Bath stone, though he also worked in marble producing chimneypieces and monuments. In 1751 he became a Baptist minister in Bath, and a year later he built a meeting house in Southgate Street. He also built a meeting house for the Anabaptists in Horse Street. He was employed by both John Wood the Elder and Sanderson Miller, working on the Bristol Exchange and the new gothic hall at Laycock Abbey.

Ralph Allen’s Mausoleum

Ralph Allen’s mausoleum is a square grade 11* structure of ashlar raised on two steps. The walls comprised of three arches each side, which were originally open, but at a later date railings were inserted. Behind the ashlar parapet the stone slab roof rises to a pyramidal shape. Below the parapet is a moulded cornice echoing the moulding on the arches piers and the tombs cornice.

View of Arches and Pyramidal Shape Roof

On the interior the pyramid has a vaulted ceiling, and the mausoleum contains a stone chest tomb with inscribed marble inserts. The tomb contains not only Allen and his second wife, but later members of the family, the last interned was in 1993. The mausoleum was restored in 1975 by Bath Preservation Trust.

Interior Vaulted Roof and the Stone Chest Tomb

 

The photos are from the author’s own collection.

The Pleasure Palace of Knowledge

On the death of her brother, an elderly spinster spent the last eight years of her life trying to secure a future for his vast collection. She had hoped that the collection would be located in the Sydney Hotel, but sadly this did not happen in her life time. The collection had been gathered by William or Thomas William Holburne, to be accurate, who came from a distinguished naval family. At the age of eleven he joined the navy and served on HMS Orion at the Battle of Trafalgar. On the death of his elder brother Francis in 1814 from a septic wound received at the Siege of Bayonne, he became heir to his father’s title, and left the navy.  When his father died in 1820 he became Sir William Holburne, the fifth Baronet of Menstrie, and embarked on the Grand Tour. This experience obviously sowed the seed for his life long passion for collecting. Over the years he was content to stay unmarried and devoted himself to collecting, with the death of his aunt Catherine Cussars, William and his siblings received a trust fund. He now had more resources  to purchase items from auctions and sales. When his family originally moved to Bath in 1802, they lived at No 7 Lansdown Place West, and were near neighbours of Sir William Beckford. Now Holburne was able to own some of Beckford’s collection when it was sold after his death in 1844. Some of Holburne’s collection featured in exhibitions in Leeds, London and Paris during his lifetime.

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7 Lansdown Place West

In 1829 William and his three unmarried sisters moved to 10 Cavendish Crescent. The ground and first floor rooms, 127.184 square metres of the house, became a backdrop for his pictures, porcelain, Wedgwood, Maiolica, silver, glass and Renaissance bronzes. It was Mary Anne Barbara, the only survivor of the four, who devoted her last years to carrying out his wish to provide Bath with its first art museum.

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10 Cavendish Crescent

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1871 Census showing William Holburne, his sisters and servants

In 1893, eleven years after her death, the collection was in its new home and on show to the public as the Holburne of Menstrie Museum. The Trustees purchased Bath Saving Bank on Charlotte Street, by auction for £2,400 in October 1890 by borrowing the money, and then sold Cavendish Crescent in January 1891 for £1,210. The collection was in a new location, but did not open to the public until 1893 due to financial difficulties.

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Old Bath Saving Bank, Charlotte Street

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Architect’s Drawings for the Museum on Charlotte Street

William Holburne had hoped that his collection would be the first art museum in Bath. But in 1900 the Victoria Art Gallery opened in a building adjoining the Guildhall. This gallery was possible because of a bequest left by Mrs Roxburgh to build an art gallery. It was presumed that Holburne’s collection would eventually be housed in the new gallery. Unfortunately the Trustees for Holburne’s sister were hostile to the suggestion, stating it was her bequest and nothing to do with the corporation. Holburne’s collection remained independent in its 163.788 square metres of space, and the new gallery became the home for the Council’s art collection and a public library.

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Victoria Art Gallery

In late 1904 the Trustees sought professional advice on the condition of the pictures, though relieved to find they needed little attention, unfortunately the report stated that they had the wrong attributions. A new curator was employed to rehang and produce a new catalogue for the collection. In present times this would not have been considered a catastrophe, artwork is consistently reassessed. The curator did not handle the situation in an acceptable manner, which ultimately lead to unfavourable publicity in the national newspapers. Though the attributions might have changed and the knowledge to assess them, the quality of the paintings had not. Not allowing this set back spoil the Trustees’s plans they moved forward and procured a new location for the collection.

The Trustees were right to wait because a large Georgian building with surrounding grounds became available, which was located in Bathwick. The Sydney Hotel was conceived by Thomas Baldwin in the early 1790s for his scheme which would include pleasure gardens in a hexagonal enclosure, based on the successful Vauxhall Gardens in London, and would have played an important part in the Bath season. This scheme was part of a larger plan that was the dream of William Pulteney who owned the Bathwick Estate. The original plan was designed by Adam and the first stage was to build Pulteney Bridge to connect Bathwick Estate with the City. (See “Gateway To A Scheme).

After Pulteney’s death his daughter favoured Thomas Baldwin to design a new layout for the estate. Baldwin was Bath City architect and surveyor, other than John Wood and his son, he has contributed more than any other architect to designing Bath.

Pulteney Bridge was a gateway to a new development on the Bathwick Estate situated to the east of the City. As the populous passed between the magnificent porticos (demolished), and crossed the bridge a magnificent vista stood before them. Passing down Argyle Street along Great Pulteney Street, all designed by Baldwin, its beautiful majestic terrace of houses with the prize at the end. The palatial Sydney House, as it was known, and the gardens, a place to see and be seen.

 Great Pulteney Street and the Holburne Museum 

His design was for the hotel to be two-storey, with single storey two bay wings on either side that were set back from the facade, including a Corinthian portico. Due to his bankruptcy as a result of the failure of the Bath Bank, curtailing several building projects in the city, his design was not used and instead a three-storey design by Charles Harcourt Masters was completed in 1799. This became the entrance to the pleasure gardens, known as Bath Vauxhall Gardens. Harcourt Masters’ design originally included a loggia, an open colonnade with three bays on either side. The bays were eventually replaced by a blind rusticated wall. At the rear of the building was a conservatory protruding from the 1st floor with three large windows. The central window allowed access to the bandstand, which was a semicircular attachment open to the elements surrounded by an iron balcony. The conservatory and bandstand were supported on Corinthian columns. As visitors passed through the archway into the gardens there were two crescents of open supper boxes. The building had card rooms, provided tea and coffee for the visitors, with a ballroom on the first floor. In the basement was a public house, allowing the visitors’ servants, coachmen and chairmen a place for refreshments. In 1836 John Pinch the younger undertook alterations to the hotel and an attic-storey was added. With the Great Western Railway line bisecting the pleasure gardens and the hotel becoming a college, with several structures constructed around the hotel, such as a gymnasium, the pleasure gardens were not as grand and Bath’s status as a health resort was also in decline.

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Plan of Sydney Gardens with Railway Line

Miss Holburne became aware that Sydney College was for sale. Unfortunately she delayed drafting a codicil for her will and died three days later on 21 June 1882, her Trustees were unable to act as all the documents had not been completed.

Eventually in the late 1880s the college closed and proposals were put forward to enlarge the building into a new hotel. Interestingly the Holburne Trustees had tried to procure the building from the Sydney Gardens Company for £1250. In April 1888 the Trustees wrote directly to the Duke of Cleveland who owned the land freehold, in the hope of lifting the restrictive covenants. “… with the consent of your Grace and therefore our purchase from the Sydney Gardens Company has been made conditional on your Grace permitting it to be used as a museum.” They were unsuccessful, losing out to a proposed hotel project, which also proved to be unsuccessful in 1896, as there were hotels under construction in the centre of Bath.

In 1906 a distant cousin of Miss Holburne died and her money from the family trust fund was able to boost the Holburne Charity’s funds. After loans and debts were settled the collection was in a better financial position.

After the college vacated in the late 1880s the building was empty and became dilapidated. The City Corporation acquired the Gardens in 1910 and the building and two acres of land were sold for £2,650 to the Holburne Trustees in 1912. The Trustees had commissioned Reginald Blomfield in 1910, before the purchase, to work on plans for the transformation into a museum. Blomfield was a very distinguished architect, historian and garden designer. He was President of RIBA (1912-14), and his large practice undertook private and commercial work. He came to the project with nearly twenty years of experience in building large country houses and renovating and extending existing ones. His initial designs were very grand with a large dome and included landscaping the garden.

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Reginald Blomfield’s 1913 Design with a Grand Dome

Unfortunately the Trustees had a maximum allowable expenditure of £10,000, therefore new designs were provided excluding the gardens and the grand dome. It is interesting that Charles Harcourt Masters’ finished design for the Sydney Hotel was very similar to Thomas Baldwin’s Guildhall. If Blomfield’s design had been accepted it would have bared more than a passing resemblance.

Bath Guildhall Designed by Thomas Baldwin 

Blomfield gutted the interior in order to provide gallery space. The first floor was enlarged by removing the ceiling and creating an impressive museum space by combining the two floor.

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Plan for the Museum Gallery on the Taller First Floor

Pinch’s attic storey now became the second floor picture gallery. The central windows were removed as the new second floor gallery was now lit by three roof lights, instead of the dome.

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Plan for the new Second Floor Picture Gallery

The ground floor space was divided up into accommodation and administration space. The Curator had a bedroom and bathroom at the rear of the building. The caretaker and his wife were at the front of the building with a kitchen and sitting room. The caretaker’s wife cooked for all residents. The Trustees used the committee room for their meetings.

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Plan of the Ground Floor

At the rear of the building a new open stone staircase rising full height through the building, was designed to take visitors to the galleries on the first and second floors. The metal rail and balustrade was topped by urns without flames.

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A Cross Section of the Building showing Staircase 

Various Views of the Staircase 

By greatly altering the layout of the internal space, he was able to improve exterior appearance. He removed the row of five small square windows below the cornice. These were replaced with framed oval medallions with husk drops for the middle and two outer bays, and square tablets with feet and gutter for the others. The side wings were replaced with a colonnade of Doric columns and a balustraded parapet and flaming urns echoing the roof line. The roof line now included a central decorative piece of blind balustrades and together with the roof corners, they were topped with flaming urns.

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Blomfield’s 1914 Design for the Front Elevation

Blomfield removed the semicircular conservatory and bandstand from the rear of the building. It was replaced by a slightly protruding section with tripartite windows to the first and second floors. The rear exit through the building to the garden was blocked, the property was now a museum rather than an entrance to the pleasure gardens.

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Blomfield’s 1914 Design for Rear Elevation

In 1916 the museum opened to the public, it was the new home of William’s collection of 4,000 items, in 298.126 square metres of gallery space.

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The Front Elevation

The museum closed towards the end of 2008 for major redevelopment work, the reopening in 2011 saw the conclusion to the hard fought battle for Eric Parry’s controversial extension.

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View of Extension from Sydney Gardens

An ultra modern design to be connected to a Grade 1 listed Georgian building. The purpose of the extension was to reunite the building with the park, something people had enjoyed doing in the eighteenth century. The supper boxes of the original Sydney Hotel have now been reincarnated as a cafe, that in fine weather spills out into the gardens.

View of and from the Cafe

As well as including a cafe, education facilities and restoring access to the gardens it extended the exhibition space. Prior to the building of the extension only 40% of the exhibits were on show, the space has now allowed the opportunity for the public to see more of the collection.

William Holburne’s Collection in the Extension Gallery

The extension is not built with the sacred honey coloured Bath stone, but with layers of glass and moulded mottled distressed dark green ceramic.

View of the Mottled Distressed Dark Green Ceramic Cladding

The facade according to RIBA “creates a sophisticated play of shadows, light and reflection – beautiful and unique, …” The design is inspired from the outside the glass reflects the trees, and the ceramic emulates the trees, from the inside the view is the trees through the glass.

The Trees Reflected in the Glass

The photos are from the author’s own collection.

An Architectural Gem

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When we build, let us think that we build forever

John Ruskin

This Victorian Gothic Revival house is Grade I listed and situated near Wraxall, North Somerset. At the heart of this picturesque building is a Georgian house which over the course of several years was transformed and emerged as something befitting a family of the richest commoner in England.

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William Gibb (1790-1875)

William Gibbs convinced British farmers of the merits of using the nitrate rich guano as a fertiliser. This was achieved with his pamphlet published in 1843 after he had brought the first shipment to Britain from South America. This risky business venture was a success and made him incredibly rich. It was these proceeds which allowed him to purchase Tynes Place, finance its alterations as well as acquiring surrounding land. The property became his country home because of its proximity to Bristol for easy access to London. He retained a London home and carried on conducting his business from the capital.

When Gibbs married Matilda Blanche Crawley-Boevey (known as Blanche), he joined a family who were ardent followers of the Oxford Movement (Tractarian Movement), this was to play an important part in their lives. This influence was evident in the remodelling of their country home and their philanthropic work. They built or extended churches, educational buildings and institutions. Many of these projects they fully funded and actively participated in their design.

In 1854 Gibbs commissioned John Gregory Crace to undertake the redecoration of their London home as well as Tyntesfield House, as it was now called. Crace’s firm had a excellent reputation, Crace and his father had worked on Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. John Crace later worked with Pugin on the interiors of the Palace of Westminster. This Gothic style was what Gibbs wanted. The work on the interior involved cleaning, repairing, painting, wallpapering and supplying new items of furniture. Gibbs negotiated a 7% discount and paid by instalments, which were completed January 1856.

In 1860 Gibbs invited the architect John Norton to Tyntesfield this lead to a commission to enlarge the house. The builder George Plucknett of William Cubitt & Co joined the team in 1861 and the planning process took the next two years. Norton was known for his Gothic architecture, he had designed several churches and was commissioned to use his talents on large country houses. His brief was to extend the house by seemlessly joining the old with the new, the work started in 1863.

Staircase Hall

John Norton’s remodelling of the Staircase Hall produced a statement piece for the house. He insterted a glazed Gothic lantern supported with English Oak beams in the roof in order to lighten this otherwise dark space. The newel posts  are of griotte and green Irish marble, ophicalcite from County Galway. The balustrade glided wrought iron’s Gothic pattern is similar to the grille surrounding the organ pipes in the Chapel at Exeter College Oxford. Crace stencilled the walls with a geometric floral patterns in green tones.

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The Staircase Hall’s incredible Gothic fireplace designed by Norton of carved Mansfield stone. The statues are of Maltese stone depicting Temperance, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence.

Library

Norton’s design for the library was based Giles Gilbert Scott’s Upper Library at Exeter College Oxford. The clear glass Gothic window stones are edged with Minton tiles. Unfortunately they can not be seen in this photo as the blinds are kept drawn to protect the interior. The fireplace is of Bath Stone with native polished stones. In the centre is an ogee arch carved with leaves, and on either side are a pair of twisted dark-red Cornish Serpentine columns.

Chapel

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O.N. Thwaite’s model of the Chapel

At last in 1873 work began on the their own chapel designed by the eminent church architect Sir Arthur Blomfield and built by the trusted George Plucknett of William Cubitt & Co, which would hopefully insure continuity with the original extension. Unfortunately they were later replaced by G. W. Booth as builders.

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The stained glass windows were designed by Henry Ellis Wooldridge and made by James Powell & Sons of Whitefriars. They also made the marble mosaic floor of blue faience, Mexican onyx and bluejohn from Blomfield’s design. The mosaics behind the altar are by Salviati & Co of Venice depicting St Paul, St Peter, St John and St James. The brass eagle lectern, chandeliers and communion rail are by James Laver of Maidenhead.

Blomfield’s design was based on the magnificent Sainte-Chapelle in the Palais de la Cite in Paris. It was consecrated just before Gibbs died in 1875 and it was left to Blanche to complete the work in 1876-7. Sadly though the Chapel had a Crypt for the family burials it has never been used. Seen as a possible rival to the local church the Bishop of Bath and Wells withheld consecration, until William Gibbs agreed that regular parochial services would not take place and no one could be buried in the Crypt, but memorials could be hung on the walls.

Blanche carried on with the building work until her death in 1887, and then the  estate passed to their son Antony. Each generation continued to work on the house and fill the interior with furniture and beautiful works of art. As with all country houses the two world wars and death duties took their toll. Antony’s grandson George Richard, known as Richard Gibbs, 2nd Baron Wraxall, was the last family to live in the house, he did not marry or have any children. The property suffered bomb damage during the war and was turned down for a repair grant. Over the next fifty years the house deteriorated and eventually Richard was living in just three rooms until his death in 2001. Richard left the estate and money to the children of his brother and half sister, who by majority could decide whether it should be sold. The National Trust launched an appeal and raised funds to buy and secure the future of the house, kitchen garden and the park. The remaining land and properties were purchased by various organisations and individuals.

 

The photos are from the author’s own collection.

 

 

 

 

 

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.