Photo by Joe Daniel Price

Beyond the spires

Oxford is full of architectural riches

Artillery Row Books

Oxfordshire: Oxford and the South-East
in The Buildings of England Series
by Simon Bradley, Nikolaus Pevsner, & Jennifer Sherwood
(New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2023)
ISBN: 978 0 300 20929 7
872 pp., 130 col., 81 b&w illus.

This volume covers one of the richest areas in England in terms of architectural excellence, including North Oxford, one of the country’s most celebrated Victorian suburbs, “fiercely Gothic in its pioneering phases, more eclectic in the later districts, but remarkably intact and well kept”. Pevsner, in his Introduction to Oxfordshire (1974), wrote of Oxford that it has a “density of monuments of architecture … which has not the like in Europe” and that the “Oxford image is a landscape made of stone, sombre at its best” … “brick is a recent addition displayed as something in its own right for the first time at Keble”. Indeed Keble is a complex built 1868–83, Oxford’s first entirely new college since Wadham in the early 17th century, a polychrome master-work with an astounding chapel, the whole designed by William Butterfield (1814–1900), a monument to the Oxford Movement, “Anglican, … earnest and exacting, it shuns all levity and it is overwhelmingly what the age called ‘real’”. Pevsner also pointed out that “Oxford has the most telling skyline of England, though dreaming spires is nonsense in every respect”: in spite of “St Mary, All Saints, and the cathedral, and now Nuffield, the place is remembered less for its spires than for Tom Tower at Christ Church, the Camera, and Magdalen tower”, the variety of which “makes the skyline”.

Cover illustration of the book under review. It depicts the Radcliffe Camera (1737–49) by James Gibbs (1682–1754)

Having carried out much of my early research within the hallowed walls of the Bodleian Library, where I became familiar with the glories of the cathedral, the Romanesque crypt of St Peter-in-the-East (now St Edmund Hall), the intricate walkways, the taverns, and the varied quads and chapels of the colleges, I formed a deep affection for the place. I can recall vividly the astonishment I experienced when I encountered such marvels as the south porch of St Mary’s church in The High, a Baroque extravaganza with a Gothic fan-vault inside; the chapel of Exeter college (1856–59) by “Great” Scott (1811–78); the Ashmolean and Taylorian Institution (1841–45) by Charles R. Cockerell (1788–1863), with its scholarly use of the Ionic Order from the temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassæ (my admiration for Cockerell’s work, which I perceived sure-footed and free from pedantry, led me to love the building perhaps even more than its marvellous contents); and the splendid Italianate basilica of St Barnabas, Jericho (1868–69), by Arthur Blomfield (1829–99), with its apsidal east end crowned with a hemi-dome embellished with the Pantocrator. In the last building the Anglo-Catholic rituals were beautifully observed, and I often sat enchanted, as the incense rose through the shafts of light pouring in from the clerestorey. Shortly before I left Oxford there were proposals to paint out the decorations at the east end as the walls were extremely grimy, but my modest suggestion that the application of gentle cleaning might be a more sensible way forward saved them.

I still recall the astonishment I felt when I first saw the extraordinary interior of the University Museum (1855–59) by Benjamin Woodward (1816–96), of Dublin architects Deane & Woodward, with its spectacular structure of iron, timber and glass by Francis Skidmore (1817–96) set within a two-storey court. The capitals of the piers are metal, exquisitely fashioned, and the polished shafts of the arcades surrounding the court are of different marbles, granites and other stones. There are 126 of them in all, from all over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (as it was then). The place is ablaze with colour, and it is one of the most extraordinary interiors I have ever seen.

There was also St Catherine’s College (1960–64), designed with rigid discipline and powerful geometry by the Dane, Arne Jacobsen (1902–71), where the brickwork and precast concrete were meticulously detailed in every respect. When I was a student I had the privilege of studying the building as it went up, and I had regular meetings with the architect supervising the work on site, Knud Helmuth Holscher (b.1930): the casting of the beams was an amazing performance, requiring a finish with a high polish. Although the rigidity of the plan and the meticulous attention to detail were unusual in Britain at the time, entry to the site was strangely casual, unrelated to the overall geometry, and indeed has never been satisfactorily resolved. I recall remarking on that at the time, but I never had a satisfactory response: the problem was not recognised and certainly never addressed.

I get the impression that the compilers of this book are not too keen on pubs: The Grapes in George Street (1894), for example, is described as “a sweet little pub”, but it was sweeter still when all the snugs were intact within. The Eagle & Child (aka Bird & Baby) was never a favourite of mine, not least because it tended to be crawling with devotees of Hobbits and other creatures, and the Lamb & Flag opposite had limited attractions. I could not find mention of the Rose & Crown, North Parade Avenue, a fine old hostelry, which I used to enjoy very much. As far as I know, it is still there (or was, the last time I had a meeting at OUP not that long ago). My own habitat for the most part was the Back Bar of the King’s Arms, entered discreetly from Holywell Street, where many a merry Moot could be enjoyed: it was not far from the Turf Tavern, tucked away under the city walls by the bell tower of New College, where luminaries like Harold Kurtz (1913–72), author of a fine book on the Empress Eugénie, could be seen playing board games with college porters. The Half Moon in St Clement’s was once very agreeable, when Mrs Tucker ran it (I have no idea what it is like now, or even if it is still there), and there was a dark cellar under a pub in Walton Street where grumpy Dan Davin (1913–90) could often be seen, reading proofs, papers and other material. The Plasterers’ Arms, St Clement’s, was once a decent hostelry (demolished long ago) when Basil Hitchcock ran it. Of course there were famous pubs, such as The Trout, beautifully situated below the weir at Godstow Bridge; The Perch at Binsey; and the Victoria Arms, Old Marston, by the Cherwell (both now probably somewhat more refined than they were in my day). The Trout is mentioned in this book, but not the other two.

Bodleian Library, Schools Quad, showing the five superimposed orders of architecture, 1613–20 (Photo credit: James Stevens Curl)

The volume under review covers the historical fabric of Oxford very well, though there are still a few snide digs at people like Ninian Comper (1864–1960), of whom Pevsner, peering through his Gropius-tinted spectacles, disapproved: the ciborium in the beautiful chapel at Pusey House (now home to St Cross College) is chastised for having a “pretty-pretty foliage frieze of blue and gold”, its designer accused of splashing “gold about”. On the other hand, the Cornmarket, which still possesses the Anglo-Saxon tower of St Michael at the North Gate and the spectacular survival or the timber-framed New Inn (1386 onwards, the restoration of which was begun by the excellent Thomas Rayson [1888–1976]), was largely ruined in the second half of the 20th century. The stodgy front of the former Woolworth’s (1956–57) by the overrated William Holford (1907–75) is described as “carefully judged”, and there is much else in the street that does not compare favourably with what was replaced. The Investcorp Building on the Woodstock Road (2013–15), by Zaha Hadid (1950–2016), “appears like an unidentifiable segment of airliner that has somehow become wedged between to pre-existing houses … all undeniably a tremendous performance”. But is it? Is it not a loutish, ill-mannered interloper, noisily interrupting harmonious North Oxford? The writers of the critique seem to have “doubts … as to the justification for such a song and dance around a fairly straightforward brief”. Indeed, and one might ask what on earth is the justification for a bit of airliner plonked down in such a situation? Likewise, is the Blavatnik School of Government, Walton Street (2013–15), by Herzog & de Meuron, really “the most original 21st-century addition to Oxford’s architecture so far”? If it is “iconoclastic” in shape and materials, how can it be justified, sited as it is to the south of the Greek Revival former church of St Paul (1835–36) by H.J. Underwood (1804–52), in a street where all the geometries, scale, materials and emphases are ignored by this arrogant intruder?

Given the rather uncertain accounts of additions to the fabric of Oxford since c.1950, it is a relief to turn to those parts of the book that deal with areas outside the city. They are full of delights, one of the most special being the church, almshouses and school at Ewelme, miraculously sited in a truly beautiful valley in the Chilterns. Inside the church is the stunning chapel of St John containing the tomb of Alice, Duchess of Suffolk (d.1475), with an effigy of the highest quality. Underneath, in the lower register of the tomb, is a cadaver, a gisant figure partly covered by a shroud, a grim example of the late Gothic obsessions with the macabre.

Another delight is the tiny church of St Katharine. Chiselhampton (1763), the best preserved Georgian church in Oxfordshire, is complete with original fittings, including high box-pews. There is also the RC chapel at Mapledurham House (1796–97), with its charming Gothick plasterwork by Samuel Kerridge of Reading. Henley-on-Thames, Dorchester (with its fascinating abbey-church of Sts Peter & Paul), Cuddesdon, Clifton Hampden, Checkendon, Chalgrove, Garsington, Goring, Great Milton, Nettlebed, Nuneham Courtenay, Rycote (with its marvellous chapel of St Michael), Shiplake, Stonor, Thame, Warborough, Watlington and many other places are covered within the pages of this book, although the glossary and its illustrations are beginning to look a bit tired and limited.

The Buildings of England series (and of Scotland, Ireland and Wales) is a marvellous resource. Apart from some shaky judgements and not a few lacunæ, this latest volume is to be welcomed.

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