Born Out of Penance

Balliol College has a prime location on the busy thoroughfare of Broad Street not far from the Sheldonian Theatre and Weston Library. Balliol is one of the earliest of the 38 constituent colleges of the University of Oxford. It was founded in 1263 as a house for poor scholars financed by John 5th Baron de Balliol, as a penance imposed on him by the Bishop of Durham with whom he had had a dispute. De Balliol was married to Dervorguilla of Galloway who’s family were wealthy and descended from Kings of Scotland. De Balliol had been appointed by Henry III as protector of the 8 year old Alexander III, King of Scotland. Interestingly de Balliol’s son John and grandson Edward went on to become rulers of Scotland. When de Balliol died Dervorguilla continued the payments for the house and granted a charter in 1282, which stipulated that a principal should be chosen by the students from within their group. The students inhabited three tenement buildings located back from Broad Street. During the 15th and 16th centuries the college carried out a building programme, resulting in a quadrangle surrounded by a chapel, library, hall and a fellows hall.

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The Upper Library (Old Hall), Lower Library and Salvin’s Tower – view from the Fellow’s Garden

The early 1790s was a bad time for the college, they were in debt and the buildings were in disrepair. Between 1791-94 James Wyatt who gained the reputation for reviving Gothic architecture, was employed to undertake the supervision of the substantial repairs and alterations that were needed. He replaced the roofs on the Old Hall with a low-pitched design adding a crenellated parapet in a gothic style. Wyatt also carried out internal work in the library, plastering the walls and installing bookcases.

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The Hall and Senior Common Room. 

The college planned to have a garden quadrangle, in order to achieve this some of the already completed buildings needed to be connected and the gaps filled with new buildings. Dr Richard Jenkyns, the Master was contributing a substantial financial amount to the project therefore he asked George Basevi. Basevi did work in the Gothic Revival style which suited the college, but two of the fellows felt his designs tended to be ‘off-the-peg’. Augustus Pugin was approached to give his opinion of the design, which was ‘not bad enough to be ridiculous, nor good enough to be commendable’. The fellows then gave the commission to Pugin. Basevi’s designs was rejected embarrassing both the architect and Jenkyns. Jenkyns was adamant that he would not approve Pugin’s designs, which resulted in arguments and the local press reporting the story. As a result the building committee was dissolved and it was decided to do nothing.

Eventually in the late 1870s Alfred Waterhouse was engaged to start with the building of a new hall and buildings to the east and west of it, on land given to the college by Benjamin Jowett, Regis Professor of Greek and Vice-Chancellor of the University. Waterhouse was the most sort after architect between the 1860s and 1880s. He favoured the Victorian Gothic Revival style, designing ecclesiastical, commercial and public buildings. He designed numerous educational buildings notably for the universities of Manchester, Liverpool, Cambridge and Oxford. The college had retained Pugin’s original designs and Waterhouse consulted the drawings, and elements of these can be seen in the finished building.

Interior Views of the Hall

The Hall is constructed of box ground walling with a Chilmark stone dressing and is grade II listed. Waterhouse’s son Paul was a student of Balliol, obtaining his MA in 1887. He was partner with his father and went on to become President of the Royal Institute of British Architects. It was Paul who undertook alterations to the Hall, panelling and blocking up the lower part of the windows.

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The Chapel in the background

In the 19th century the college consulted William Butterfield, a Gothic Revival architect and follower of the Oxford Movement, with a view to enlarge the 16th century chapel, so it could accommodate the ever increasing student numbers. This chapel had originally replaced an earlier 14th century one. A majority of Butterfield’s work was for religious buildings, though he did design educational ones too. The decision was taken to completely rebuild the church and salvage the windows and other items for reuse. The beginning of 1856 saw the demolition of the chapel, and by August, Butterfield’s polychrome external colour scheme was there for all to see. Though many had reservations about the red and white bands of brickwork, Butterfield had “… little doubt about it when finished.” He continued to use the polychromatic brickwork design long after his fellow architects had abandoned the idea.

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Laurence Stubbs’ Window

Butterfield reused the Laurence Stubbs’ window from the second chapel, but he felt it looked out of place for his new design. He decided that “We must have the best window which has yet been done.” He set to work designing his own window with coloured banding to match the red and white banding of the interior walls, the window was made by Wailes of Newcastle.

The stained glass and the crowned brazen eagle lectern were salvaged from the previous chapel. The silver gilt altar dates from 1927

Butterfield died in 1900 and by 1912 a scheme championed by Strachan-Davidson, the Master, was put forward to completely demolish the chapel. Walter Morrison was happy to donate £20,000 for the demolition and rebuilding of a replacement. But several of the fellows felt that this would be a misuse of money, and would go against their belief in using funds to insure the admission of poor students, especially when the chapel was serviceable. Unfortunately the college and the poor students lost out on Morrison’s money and instead retiring professors were the beneficiaries. The college’s solution was to plaster over the interior to hide the bands, and to reinstate the Laurence Stubbs’ window. Later they replaced the stalls with a walnut design by Walter Tapper. Butterfield’s final humiliation, in 1940 his iron screen was scrapped for the war effort.

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Balliol’s Black Mulberry Tree

There are several stories as to the origin of this ancient tree. Some say it was planted by Queen Elizabeth I or possibly King Charles II. But as King James I decreed that Mulberry Trees should be planted to help establish an English silk industry, it is more than likely the tree dates from this period. Unfortunately the trees planted were black mulberries, and it was the white mulberry leaves that the silk worm eats. This mulberry tree, even though it is bent with age, still manages to produce a crop of mulberry fruit.

 

The photos are from the author’s own collection.

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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.