A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1954.
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THE SHELDONIAN THEATRE
For centuries the public ceremonies of the University were performed in St. Mary's church. With the Restoration came the wish to have a secular building where they might be celebrated with suitable dignity and 'without the sacriledge of those times during the Rebellion'. (fn. 1) The University approached the City about a site in March 1663, and by 1664 had successfully negotiated the lease of some land and of six tenements in Canditch. (fn. 2) Bishop Sheldon, a former Warden of All Souls, soon to become Archbishop of Canterbury, was the inspirer of the project, and when his £1,000 subscription in 1664 failed to attract others he shouldered the whole cost of £12,200. (fn. 3)
The architect was Christopher Wren, then Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford. On 29 April 1663 a model of the theatre (costing £10) made to his specifications by the Oxford mason, Mr. Bird, was shown to the Royal Society, and in the following year the Vice-Chancellor's Accounts record the payment of £6 17s. 6d. for a 'Present of Plate for his (i.e. Wren's) paines about ye theater by appoyntment of ye Delegates'. (fn. 4) His design was in part a reconstruction of the theatre of Marcellus as illustrated by Serlio in his Architecture, 1540: it is possible that he intended to imitate the double-order scheme of the Roman building, for Wren's son said that the Oxford Theatre would have been 'executed in a greater and better Style, with a View to the ancient Roman grandeur' had Wren not been limited by expense. (fn. 5) The English architect's original contribution to the Roman-theatre plan was the roof, and the encircling gallery within, a characteristic device used later in many of his London churches. (fn. 6) His ingenious handling of the problem of the roof, a complicated wooden structure, constructed without cross beams and supported only by braces and screws though the ceiling spanned an area of 70 ft. by 80 ft., excited contemporary (and later) admiration. It is described at length by Plot (1676). (fn. 7) Wren owed the idea to Dr. Wallis, 'the most learned prodigy of the age', who made a model of this type of roof for the Royal Society in 1650 and later wrote a mathematical treatise on it. But Wren first put theory into practice.
The curious round windows of the roof, 'so contrived that they admit air and exclude rain'; the bivalve wooden windows of the upper gallery, 'so ingeniously contrived that notwithstanding their great weight yet can never sink so as to be brought out of square as 'tis usual in such windows', also inspired praise. Both sets may be seen in their original state in Loggan's engravings (1669) of the 'stupendous fabrick'. (fn. 8)
Building operations began with the pulling down of the houses leased from the city, of a part of the city wall, and of the 'University's embattled wall that parted them from the area lying before the Convocation House door, and on the north side of the Divinity school'. (fn. 9) By 26 July 1664 work was sufficiently far advanced for a ceremonial laying of the foundation stone. The ViceChancellor, a number of bishops, the heads of houses and others descended to the foundations and laid each a stone 'with the offering of gold &silver on them'. (fn. 10) From this month the accounts of the undertaking, hitherto administered by the University, were kept with meticulous care by Dean Fell, (fn. 11) officially appointed Treasurer, and give a detailed picture of the progress of the work during the next five years. (fn. 12)
Thomas Robinson was the master mason. He employed a team of craftsmen and labourers, many of whom were regularly at work till the end. The traditional nature of the mason's craft is well illustrated by the number of family groups engaged—Robinson's three sons, John, Francis, and Thomas, for instance; there were also several members of the Dewe, Sedman, Freeman, and Evans families. All were paid 1s. 6d. per day; their labourers 1s. In the first year the highest bill paid to Robinson was only £18 odd for a week, but by 1667 when six days a week were worked instead of the usual five the bills reached between £23 and £36 a week during May. At that time as many as 41 skilled masons were at work with 20 labourers. The master carpenter was Richard Frogley (Plot's 'able carpenter') who was regularly engaged on University work. He, too, employed a number of craftsmen, each paid like himself at 1s. 6d. per day. (fn. 13) It was their crowning task to construct Wren's elaborate roof. As the building progressed other local men were engaged—the master joiner, Robert Minchin, (fn. 14) the glazier Bernard Rawlins, (fn. 15) the stone-cutter Bird, Samuel Wilkins, brass worker, John Dewe, master plasterer, and John Showell, iron worker, while London craftsmen were taken on to complete the beautification of the building.
The material used was obtained from various places. For the free-stone, Dr. Fell obtained the lease of a quarry at Shotover from Squire Brome Whorwood. (fn. 16) This Headington stone was used for the massive arcading of the ground story (except on the south side), which is now 'sadly decayed but still unpatched', (fn. 17) the smoother Cotswold stone being used for the upper story and so lending it a lighter look. There is record of Thomas Robinson's visit to Burford (26 Aug. 1664) to negotiate purchases from the local quarries, and from then on supplies of Burford stone came regularly to Oxford by water, by way of Radcot Bridge and High Bridge. Thomas Strong, for example, 'one of the great Cotswold builder-quarrymen who were to raise the new London', sent supplies in Nov. 1665, and one of the last bills for Burford stone was paid in Oct. 1668—£20 12s. for 309 ft. at 1s. 4d. the foot. John Ward was another important supplier, sending stone from Burford as well as from Barrington Quarry. (fn. 18) There is no reference to the harder Taynton stone, to be used so extensively forty years later at Blenheim, or of Windrush stone, but Mr. Arkell suggests they may be included in the term 'Burford', used in a generic sense. There is one reference in the accounts to stone from Bladon, probably used for paving. (fn. 19)
A variety of districts was drawn on for timber, partly, no doubt, because of the scarcity of trees in the county at this date, partly because of the need for specially selected wood for the great beams of the roof and for the fine panelling of the interior walls. Bletchington, Buckingham, Bicester, Islip, Holton, are among the places mentioned, while New College, Christ Church, and Brasenose supplied material from their estates.
The lead for the roof (48 fother costing £777 odd with carriage) came from Derby. (fn. 20)
Though we have the weekly wage bills and the names of all the workmen, details of the work done are rarely given. Wood tells us that by the winter of 1664 the foundations had been brought up level with the surface: (fn. 21) by the following winter Fell's accounts show that the Oxford smith, John Showell, was already at work on 'the 14 first windows, ye locketts &uprights'. (fn. 22) By the summer of '66 the work of decoration had begun: on 14 Sept. William Bird, the well-known Oxford mason and stone-cutter, is first mentioned as carving capitals and keystones. (fn. 23)
'The outside being in a manner completely finished' in 1667, the middle row of houses in Canditch on the North side of the Theatre was bought and pulled down to the end that the new building 'might look more graceful'. (fn. 24) The Vice-Chancellor and University also obtained the City's consent 'to make a paire of faire staires to their new erected Theatre in the street towards Canditch and to wall in soe much of the street before the said staires as shall be needful to fence in the sayd stayre case'. (fn. 25) By the autumn the joiners and wood-carvers were busy on the interior of the building. The wood-work in the upper gallery and staircases was done by Oxford men—the Frogleys (Richard, and his son Arthur, soon to be employed on the Library of University College), (fn. 26) and John Rainsford. Robert Minchin was employed specifically on the 'windores and dores', and so, too, was his son-in-law, John Griffin, who was paid at the high rate of 2s. a day 'for hanging dores and casements and setting up windores'. (fn. 27)
But the more elaborate wainscotting and woodcarving was done by two London craftsmen, the brothers William and Richard Cleer. They and their servants made frequent journeys down to Oxford, but mostly their work was done in the London workshop and sent to Oxford by John Bossom's barge. (fn. 28) William Cleer's total bill reached £1,347 3s. 2d. The following items are characteristic of his contribution: wainscotting 12 doors at 40s. a piece and two pair of 'double wainscotting dores' at £10 on the stair cases; 180 ft. capital moulding at 18d. a foot and panelling in the passage, little staircase, rooms and lobbies; about 30 yds. Bollection work at 10s. a yard in the front gallery with 'wainscot, dore cases 6 pedestalls to ye columns, 12 pilasters with their pedestalls at 60s. a peice, 2 balconyes at £6 10 a peice'. Among his charges for the 'ovall gallerye' occur: '103 yds. Bollection work, £5 1. 10; 74 yds. modellin (fn. 29) cornish £74; for ye upper cornish &carving £200. For 22 collumns at £3 a peice £66. For 2 procters seates &2 dore cases £70'. He did the wainscotting in the Vice-Chancellor's gallery and the pit at a cost of £96 and £79 16s. respectively. (fn. 30)
Richard Cleer was the artist-carver. He and his six assistants carved all the decorative woodwork of the lower cornice ('304 modillons at 1s. a peice, … 222 ft. Eggs, Teeth, Archetts, small leaves, & Lace at 2s. a ft., … 264 flowers at 6d. a peice'), the 16 masque heads under the upper galleries, the carving over the 'Front outward dores' ('great Raphaell Leaves, Oaken Leaves, Acorns and Husks at 6s. 6d. per ft.)'; the shields with arms over the four main doors; 'lace about ye windows in the upper part of the staircases, the balconies with 'anticke supporters', the 17 flambeaux on the two tables, capitals, pedestals, the 'dore-cases' under the proctors' seats and so on. His total bill amounted to £288 15s. 9d. Outstanding amongst all this superb work are the proctor's rostrums, the masterly Vice-Chancellor's chair, (fn. 31) and 'the Pulpitt in the Pitt', the latter very elaborately worked with festoons, water leaves, folding leaves, berries, and beads. (fn. 32) Work such as this gives him the right to rank as 'probably the leading craftsman in wood before the rise of Grinling Gibbons'. Mr. Hussey thinks that he may have been one of 'the originators of the elaborate open-work carving typical of Charles II's reign'.
The year 1668 was notable for the painting of the ceiling. Robert Streeter, recently appointed Serjeant Painter to the Crown (1660–79), (fn. 33) and Pepys' 'famous history painter' and 'very civil little man', had been commissioned to paint the canvas. Pepys reports how he found Dr. Wren and friends inspecting the paintings and saying that they would be better than Reubens's ceiling to the Banqueting House, but that he contented himself with the admission that they 'will certainly be very noble'. (fn. 34) The sections were sent down by water and put up by John Wilkins, the London joiner, at a charge of over £210. (fn. 35) In April, the painter himself, his son and servants came to Oxford, and we may take it that the canvas was by then fully completed and in position. It created a great stir: 'That future ages must confess they owe To Streeter more than Michael Angelo' was poetic licence, (fn. 36) but Plot thought it 'well worthy of examination'. Later opinion was more critical: in 1687 James II dryly commented 'twas pittie Varrio did not paint it', and Lord Orford called it 'a very mean performance'.
It was designed to suggest the Roman theatre open to the sky, and had gilded ropes (in carved wood) stretched from side to side, supporting a red drapery which could be unfurled by cherubs to protect the audience. Each compartment was painted separately and is a self-contained composition. The subject symbolizes the Restoration—the triumph of Religion and the Arts over Envy, Malice, Rapine, and Ignorance. (fn. 37)
The inside painting of the Theatre was done by an Oxford craftsman, Richard Hawkins, (fn. 38) at a cost of £235 3s. 1d. In the main, he used only two colours—'stone colour' and 'cedar colour', but 22 wooden columns and 12 pilasters were 'done like rance with a high varnish', that is, they were painted to imitate a Flemish marble of a dingy red colour varied with veins and spots of blue and white. The '17 flambeauxes were don over with copper, ye flames gilded'. The note that the King's arms painted stone colour in oil was 'done 8 times ore' indicates the high quality of the work. (fn. 39)
The bills for the first half of' 69 show that the finishing touches were being put. In the early months painted pieces and boards of wainscot were arriving by barge; also 2 'long chests of gold ware and 4 peices of cloth'; much work was done to make the cellars usable; Lord Howard's and some of Mr. Selden's marbles came down by water, were repaired and set up by Bird (the inclosing walls in which the marbles were set (fn. 40) with their flaming urns on top must have been built earlier); the iron railings with their spaced stone plinths and surmounting heads were completed, William Bird being the carver; holly sets (on Evelyn's advice) were planted to keep the curious from damaging the marbles. (fn. 41) So, the 'Theatre, a work of admirable Contrivance & Magnificence' and 'the first public Performance of the Surveyor in Architecture' was finished. (fn. 42)
In July came the first Encaenia, vividly described by Evelyn. The Theatre's dedication was celebrated 'with the greatest splendour and formalitie'; there was 'a world of strangers and other companie … from all parts of the nation'; speeches and music from 11 till 7 o'clock. Wren and Dr. Fell were presented by the archbishop with gold cups costing £204 7s. and made curators. (fn. 43)
Repairs and structural alterations to the Theatre are recorded in the separate 'Theatre Accompt' presented by the Curators and kept with the Vice-Chancellor's accounts from 1670 on. Sheldon gave £2,000 (invested by the Curators in land at Lechlade) for repairs, and the surplus for the encouragement of printing; this sum was augmented in 1805 by a bequest of £2,000 from Dr. Wills, late Warden of Wadham. (fn. 44) The first substantial payment relates to £100 paid to 'Mr. Smith' (i.e. Bernard Schmidt) for the organ in 1671, and over £225 to Richard Frogley and others for 'building ye new Print House of ye theatre under the East wall'. (fn. 45) The Theatre had been designed to house the University Press: the attics were used for book stores, compositors and correctors occupied rooms built under the galleries and printing presses were put in the basement. But the printers' business overflowed into the area of the Theatre, and this unsatisfactory arrangement was now partly mitigated by the additional building. (fn. 46) In 1680 the 'Prospect' was still further improved by the purchase of garden ground near the Theatre costing £100. (fn. 47)
The scare about the safety of the 'roof', described by Elmes (Wren's biographer) as contrived to annoy Sir Christopher, led the Vice-Chancellor to commission William Townesend in 1720 to make a thorough examination. He reported that the roof was in as good condition as twenty years earlier, when it was found to have sunk about two inches in the middle owing to the shrinkage of the timbers and the great weight of books laid on it. He prophesied 'that the whole Fabrik … is … like to remain and continue in such good repair & condition for one hundred or two hundred years yet to come'. (fn. 48)
Between 1720 and 1727 much repainting was done in the Theatre by Witherington, the painter, and a new organ made by Renatus Harris was installed. (fn. 49) (This was the organ on which Handel performed his Athalia accompanied, as Hearne says, by his 'crew of lousy German fiddlers'.) It was at this time, too, that the picture of Archbishop Sheldon and Queen Anne 'was fix'd'. (fn. 50) And perhaps now, also, was completed the interesting painting of Sir Christopher Wren by Antonio Varrio, Sir Godfrey Kneller, and Sir James Thornhill. (fn. 51) It depicts the Professor of Astronomy seated in front of an open volume showing a design for the Theatre. In 1737 the beautification of the building was completed by the erection in the niches of the south front of two statues of Sheldon and Ormonde, carved out of white marble at a cost of £223 7s. by Henry Cheere of Westminster. William Townesend, who put them in position, was also paid out of the Theatre account a mysterious £42 18s. for 'other work'. Could this have been for the statue of Charles II in classical armour, standing over the north door and of which there is no direct mention ? (fn. 52)
No further change of moment occurred until the seventies when several large bills occur in the accounts—notably £373 16s. to Mr. Kettle for painting, gilding, lineing, &c. in 1761–2 (Theatre Account). It is to Kettle, who was presumably Tilly Kettle (1740–98), 'an ingenious portrait painter in London' that we owe the present colouring of the interior. The brown painted woodwork was picked out with gilding and the 'gallery parapets were painted to simulate Sienna and statuary marble'. (fn. 53) According to Dallaway, Penny, the Professor of Painting in the Royal Academy restored Streeter's painting in 1762. (fn. 54) If so, he must have been commissioned by Kettle, for he does not appear in the Theatre accounts. In the year 1767–8 sash windows were substituted for the original ones by Henry Keene at a cost of £148. (fn. 55)
Large-scale redecoration and repairs appear to have been done again in the nineties. There is a reference to a payment of over £195 to an unidentified Mr. Taylor. (He was not one of the carpenters, masons, or painters usually employed.) Payments of £278 odd to Mr. Tawney, the regular Theatre carpenter, and of smaller sums to the painter and plasterer were made in the same year (1792–3), apparently for work at the Theatre: in 1798–9 more painting was done, and the ornamental marble was cleaned and repaired. In 1800 it was decided that the Theatre must be re-roofed, as according to Dallaway it was 'in danger of falling'. (fn. 56) Bodley's Librarian, writing to Gough on 6 Jan. 1802, reports that the University's architect, Mr. George Saunders, was expected in Oxford soon and that he was at that time preparing in his London home 'a new roof for our Theatre which we expect will be completely finished before July'. (fn. 57) Work was in full swing in 1801 as Valentine Cox says the Encaenia that year was held in the Radcliffe. He has an interesting account of the operations; of how the roofless building looked like an ancient amphitheatre, and how the allegorical paintings were successfully 'peeled off' and restored in 'perfect condition'. (fn. 58) He lamented the 'unscrupulous' removal on the plea of lightening the roof of the 10 or 12 circular windows (richly ornamented and partially gilded) of the original design. He thought the old roof more ornamental, and the old cupola more elegant, with its streaming gilt flambeau, than its larger and more conspicuous successor. (fn. 59) (The present octagonal structure was designed by Blore in 1838.) (fn. 60) Dallaway, on the other hand, admired the new roof, but lamented the reinstatement of the balustrade and considered a solid parapet 'would have been more accordant with good taste'. In contemporary drawings (notably Mackenzie's done in 1820) (fn. 61) the Theatre, bereft of cupola and round windows, looks comparatively undistinguished.
In 1826 further restoration was undertaken. The large sum of £705 paid to Dixon, decorative painter, (fn. 62) must have been for the new gilding and painting of the Theatre, and for the repair and restoration of the ceiling which is recorded in Brewer's History. (fn. 63) In 1899, on the advice of Professor Church, (fn. 64) the paintings, having been damaged by damp, were once again taken down, relined, and restored.
At some point in the 19th century it seems that the stone work of the building was in part refaced, the upper stage on the east, west, and north side with Bath stone, and the bay on the south-west corner with Clipsham. (fn. 65) Possibly the work was done in 1838, or in 1868 when the heads of the 'Caesars' (as Max Beerbohm calls them in Zultika Dobson) or of the 'metaphysic sages' in Robert Bridges's possibly more correct phrase, were restored 'before the most decayed and choppiest should quite defy a faithful copyist'. By 1919 the thirteen restored heads (the fourteenth was cut out when the Clarendon was built) were 'rotted worse than the originals'. (fn. 66)
On T. G. Jackson's advice a new rostrum-staircase was put in in 1906 by Symm & Co.; (fn. 67) and in 1911 one bay of the west front was refaced and the cornices of the west and north fronts were repaired. In 1934 electric light was permanently installed after half a century of debate (the proposal to put it in was rejected in 1880 on the grounds that it was 'not desirable to increase facilities for musical and other entertainments in the evening'); and in the following year some major structural alterations were undertaken as a result, wider exits from the upper gallery and two fireproof staircases on the north side being added. In 1936 Mr. W. R. J. Dodd agreed to reconstruct the galleries with steel columns and teak joists at an estimated cost of £8,250. In 1950 the Minutes of the Curators record agreement on 'the urgent necessity for renovating the exterior stonework'.
Elegant and strong in design, marvellously rich in craftsmanship, the Theatre has admirably served its purpose for nearly 300 years, and still provides a dignified and superb setting for ceremonial occasions.