A seat of learning
In the 17th century, Oxford University began to integrate its institutional buildings into an imposing architectural ensemble. In the first of two articles, Geoffrey Tyack examines this remarkable evolution
In the first of two parts, Geoffrey Tyack explains the remarkable evolution of the Schools Quadrangle and Bodleian Library in Oxford
The Schools Quadrangle and Bodleian, Oxford, part I
Where is the University?’ ask the visitors who flock to Oxford. The answer is that it is both everywhere and nowhere. Universities are, first and foremost, communities of scholars and aspiring scholars, not collections of buildings and, when the first european universities began in the 12th century, they had no buildings of their own and were forced to use spaces in churches, monasteries and private houses.
In so far as the medieval University of Oxford had a central building, it was the church of St Mary the Virgin—still called the University Church—in the high street. Ceremonies and disputations (structured debates) were held there and, in the 1320s, a congregation house was built onto it for meetings of the university’s governing body, with a library above. Lectures were given in rented rooms in School Street (now vanished) to the north of the church.
In the 1440s, a two-storeyed range of lecture rooms called the Oseney Abbey Schools formalised this arrangement. The range stood at the end of School Street against the city wall and accommodated rooms for teaching the liberal arts and the common curriculum up to MA level: metaphysics, moral philosophy, geometry, arithmetic and rhetoric on the ground floor and natural philosophy, astronomy, music, dialectic (that is, logic) and grammar upstairs.
Next to the Oseney Schools, and at right angles to them, was the Divinity School, begun in the 1420s for the teach- ing of theology, ‘Queen of the Sciences’, and one of the three ‘higher faculties’ leading to a doctorate (the other two were law and medicine).
The present Schools Quadrangle (Fig 2) replaced this arrangement, swallowing up the Divinity School in the process, along with the 15th-century library built above it, the subject of next week’s article.
Its construction directly followed the re-establishment of the university library by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1598, after whom the Bodleian is named. he was a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, where he had lectured in Greek; he later served as a diplomat before marrying a rich widow in 1586 and inheriting her fortune. This enabled him to refurbish the existing library, denuded of its books after the reformation, and to pay for an eastward extension—arts end— in 1610–12 (Fig 1).
It was the first example in Britain of a library with shelving along the walls, the upper levels of which were reached by timber galleries, as in Philip II’S earlier library at his palace-monastery of el escorial in Spain.
The building of Arts end entailed the demolition of the old Oseney Schools, presenting the university with an opportunity both to increase its teaching accommodation and to assert its own architectural identity as distinct from that of its constituent colleges.
During elizabeth’s reign, the number of students doubled and numbers continued to grow until the 1630s, as the university attracted the sons of the gentry and aspirant clergy. All students now lived in colleges and a handful of academic halls and they also received much of their tuition there, but it was
the university which awarded them their degrees and it continued to organise courses of lectures.
The desire to articulate the importance of the university would continue throughout the 17th century and would later involve the construction of the Convocation House (Fig 5) and Chancellor’s Court in the 1630s beyond the Divinity School, and the Sheldonian Theatre adjacent to it (see Country Life, November 27, 2013).
The new Schools Quadrangle was, in the words of the 17th-century Oxford antiquary Anthony Wood, a ‘compleat quadrangular pile, wherein the Schools of the superior and inferior Arts, as also the Tongues [languages] might be continued’.
The first English university to arrange its lecture rooms around a courtyard was Cambridge, where the 14thand 15th-century buildings still survive as university offices, barely noticed in the shadow of King’s College Chapel. The same pattern was followed abroad as at Padua, a place much visited by English travellers and seekers after knowledge. There, the ‘palazzo dell’università’ of 1546–87 boasted not only lecture rooms and a magnificent
aula for ceremonies, but also an anatomy theatre that still survives.
At the University of Würzburg in Germany, rebuilt by the Prince-bishop in the full flush of the Counter-reformation in 1582, there was room for between 150 and 200 students, along with a church, refectory, rooms above for trainee priests, lecture rooms, an aula and a library, all arranged around a three-storeyed courtyard.
The building of the new quadrangle in Oxford involved buying up property facing Catte Street, to the east of the former Oseney Schools. An appeal was launched among old members and eventually brought in £4,500. Bodley promised to pay 10% of the final cost himself and, in his will (1613), he left money for a third storey, which could serve in the short term as a picture gallery and eventually as ‘a very large supplement for the stowage of books’.
Work began immediately. The two lower floors housed lecture rooms for each of the academic disciplines currently taught, with the names of the subjects picked out in gold over the doorways from the quadrangle. The two higher faculties of law and medicine occupied rooms on the first floor to the west, now reached from the vaulted entrance hall or proscholium under Arts End (Fig 3)—which also gave access to the Divinity School—by staircase towers; the stairs with their twisted wooden balusters date from later in the 17th century.
Lecture rooms for the seven liberal arts, leading to the BA and MA degrees, were housed on two floors in the rest of the building, along with rooms for the teaching of Greek and (later) Hebrew—essential components of Humanist (Classical) learning as understood at the time.
The rooms were, in Wood’s words, ‘ample and spacious auditories, each with a chair for the lecturer and benches for students’, but none of the original furnishings have survived successive changes of use. The groundfloor lecture rooms are now offices, those on the first floor, including the former Anatomy School (used as a museum of bizarre specimens in the late 17th and early 18th centuries) as the Library’s Lower Reading Room.
The third floor, now the Upper Reading Room (Fig 6) took the form of a gallery running around three sides of the quadrangle. It housed the university’s portrait collection and there were cabinets for coins and medals, together with ‘curiosities’, which included a chair made out of timbers from Sir Francis Drake’s ship Golden Hind.
The gallery was open to visitors at stated times and has a claim to being the first public art museum in Britain. In 1949, its painted frieze of 200 portraits of writers and philosophers, dating from about 1616–19, was uncovered and restored; the subjects were chosen by Bodley’s first librarian, Thomas James, drawing upon André Thévet’s Pourtraits et vies des
hommes illustres (1584), with writers on the liberal arts in the north range, on medicine and law to the east, and on theology to the south.
A muniment room and an observatory—a sine qua non of any up-todate university of the time—occupied the top two floors of the gate tower.
The quadrangle takes its architectural cue from Arts End and, more distantly, from the Divinity School. Best
‘communities Universities are, first and foremost, of scholars and aspiring scholars
seen from Radcliffe Square, it is a massive rectangular block with large windows, the outline enlivened by battlements and pinnacles. Entrance is through a giant gatehouse, which is internally decorated with the five orders of Classical architecture— Tuscan, Roman Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite—neatly stacked one above the other and a profusion of strapwork, curlicues and obelisks surrounding the royal coat of arms at the top (Fig 4).
In England, the Classical orders— as a French borrowing—were perhaps first used decoratively in the Gate of Honour at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge (1567) and were tentatively introduced to Oxford in the entrance to St Alban Hall in Merton Street in 1599. They were more prominently displayed in the Classical frontispiece to the Fellows’ Quadrangle at Bodley’s college, Merton, in 1608–10, the first collegiate quadrangle to be built of three storeys throughout; there is a similar ‘frontispiece’ at the centre of the Hall and Chapel range of the newly funded Wadham College (1610–12).
The Warden of Merton, Sir Henry Savile (1549–1622), was a Classical scholar and polymath who had taught Greek to Elizabeth I, had lectured on Copernicus and who subsequently founded endowed chairs in astronomy and geometry, the intellectual discipline that traditionally encompassed architecture (incidentally, the point of Christopher Wren’s entry into the discipline).
Savile’s monument by Nicholas Stone in Merton College chapel is flanked by figures of Euclid and Tacitus, whose works he had edited, and he owned a copy of Vitruvius, which he gave to the Bodleian Library. A close friend of Bodley—who said that he had ‘the judgment of a mason’—he brought in two stonemasons from his native West Yorkshire, John Akroyd and John Bentley, to work both at Merton and on the Schools Quadrangle, enraging the local Oxford masons in the process, and he took over the architectural direction of the whole project following Bodley’s death in 1613.
Savile must have determined the design of the gatehouse as a ‘tower of the orders’: a feature that, as Roger North remarked in the 1690s, was ‘very suitable for an academy’. Ackroyd was described in the register of Oxford University as the ‘chief builder’ of Arts End and the Schools Quadrangle, but he died in 1613 and was succeeded by Bentley, described on his monument (1615) as ‘the most skilful architect of the library and schools’. Bentley’s brother then took over and, after his death, a carpenter, Thomas Holt, supervised the final stages of the building.
In 1620, James I gave the university a copy of his published works on theology. The University commemorated the gift by commissioning a sculpture (originally painted) for the inner face of the fourth floor of the gate tower. It shows the King enthroned under a canopy bearing the words ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ and attended by Fame and Learning, the former blowing a trumpet. The sculptor was probably John Clark, who may have been Ackroyd’s son-in-law.
The building has remained superficially unchanged since its completion in the early 1620s, but there have been many internal, and some external, changes since then. In 1876–82, the whole building was taken over by the Bodleian Library following the building of Thomas Graham Jackson’s exuberantly detailed Examination Schools in the High Street. Today, the Schools Quadrangle is still the intellectual heart of the University, the citadel to the ‘Republic of Letters’ to which Sir Thomas Bodley dedicated his library more than 400 years ago.
Fig 1: Arts End, the first British library with wall shelving
Fig 5 above: The Convocation House, built in the 1630s. It served as a parliament chamber on several occasions. Fig 6 below: The Upper Reading Room can claim to be Britain’s first public art gallery. The frieze of bust portraits dates to about 1616–19