Sheldonian Theatre

An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Oxford. Originally published by His Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1939.

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'Sheldonian Theatre', in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Oxford, (London, 1939) pp. 10-12. British History Online [accessed 24 April 2024]

Sheldonian Theatre

(2) The Sheldonian Theatre stands on the S. side of Broad Street. It is of two architectural stages with a basement, the walls are ashlar-faced and the roofs are slate-covered. The theatre was built from the designs of Christopher Wren between the years 1664–69 at the expense of Archbishop Sheldon, the foundation-stone being laid on June 26th, 1664. The stone came from various Oxfordshire quarries, the master-mason was Thomas Robinson and the mastercarpenter Arthur Frogley; the stone-carving was done by William Byrde, the joinery by William Clere and the wood-carving by Richard Clere; the ceiling was painted by Robert Streater; the total cost was £14,470.11.11. The original roof had a series of oval dormer-windows; these were removed and the central cupola was re-built in 1838; the roof was repaired in 1900. The external stonework was partially restored in 1890, 1910 and 1935, and in 1936–7 the internal fittings were strengthened by steel supports and otherwise reconditioned.

The building is the earliest surviving structure of its class in England and is interesting as an early example of Wren's work.

Exterior. The S. Front is of two stages with a slightly projecting central feature. The lower stage has four attached Corinthian columns to the central feature and pilasters of the same order to the side-bays; these support a continuous entablature with a cartouche of the arms of Gilbert Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the middle and the following inscription on the frieze "Academiae Oxoniensi bonisque literis S. Gilbertus Sheldon Archiep. Cantuariensis Cancellar. Univers. fecit A.D. 1668." Each bay of this stage has a round-headed arch with imposts and scrolled keystone and enclosing a central doorway, four windows and two niches; the doorway has panelled doors of two leaves and carved mitres in the spandrels of the arch; the niches are round-headed and contain figures of Archbishop Sheldon and James Butler, first Duke of Ormonde (Plate 52), in Roman costume, ascribed to Sir Henry Cheere. In the upper stage, the central feature has four Composite pilasters supporting an entablature and pediment with a semi-circular lunette and three vases; between the capitals is a band of carved swags and the slope of the pediment is continued down over the side bays as a cornice with scrolled ornaments on the wall-face below it; each bay of the central feature has a two-light square-headed window surmounted by an entablature and panelled tympanum all within an enclosing round-headed recess with a carved key-block; above each window is a cartouche-of-arms of Sheldon and the See of Canterbury (twice) and in the central tympanum is the carved cypher of Charles II. The side-bays are divided by panelled pilasters with an entablature; two bays have windows similar to those on the central feature and the two outer bays have sunk panels; on the entablature are cartouches with the monogram G.S. and the arms of the University. The sides and semi-circular end of the building (Plate 60) are also of two stages finished with a balustraded parapet with piers and vases between the bays. The lower stage is rusticated and finished with a cornice; each bay, except the northernmost, has a round-headed recess or arch springing from a pier with moulded base and impost continued along the wall; the keystones have carved heads; each recess, except two on each side, has a square-headed window and a lunette in the head of the arch; the northernmost bay has a square-headed doorway with a panelled door and a shell-headed niche above, containing a figure of Charles II in Roman armour; above the arch are carved swags and a cartouche of the royal Stuart arms; on the cornice of this and the adjoining bays is an inscription giving the style and titles of Charles II. Two bays on each side of the building have square-headed doorways, fitted with panelled doors. The upper stage is divided into bays by panelled pilasters supporting a continuous entablature; each bay has a square-headed two-light window; above each is a cartouche bearing the G.S. monogram, the arms of the see of Canterbury and the University, the quarters of the royal arms, royal cypher, thistle and rose.

The Sheldonian Theatre

Interior. The interior is of two main stages, the lower with tiers of seats rising from a stylobate and having further tiers of seats against the stylobate on the S. side and round the curve of the auditorium. The upper stage forms a gallery resting on a timber colonnade of the Composite order; the columns stand on pedestals and support an entablature and a panelled gallery-front, continued round the building; on the entablature are cartouches of the royal Stuart arms, those of the University and two palm-branches. Under the platform, except on the S. side, runs a corridor, now partly cut up into rooms. The S. angles are occupied by staircases and opening off these is a pair of small rostra or balconies with a semi-circular balustrade of turned balusters, supported on winged female figures as brackets; the doorways opening into them, have enriched architraves, with a cartouche and swags above and panelled doors with original fittings. The E. and W. doorways have eared architraves, cornices and consoles; over both is a small pentagonal rostrum or balcony with a lion's mask on the front panel and carved pierced panels on the sides. Between the windows, except on the S. wall, is re-used 17th-century panelling. The soffit of the gallery has a plaster vault springing from cross-beams, resting on the columns and on grotesque corbels on the outer walls. The S. staircases have turned balusters, panelled newels with ball-terminals and pendants and close strings; the windows of these staircases, at the gallery level, have enriched eared architraves with swags, scrolls and cornices above, and shutters. Between the windows of the gallery is some re-used 17th-century panelling, made up with modern work. The walls are finished with a modillioned cornice, above which is the flat ceiling (Plate 59) painted by Robert Streater and repaired in 1762; it represents Religion surrounded by Geometry, Law, Justice, Music, Drama, Astronomy and Architecture, clouds and red drapery and amorini; at the S. end a figure representing Envy, Hatred and Malice is cast down. The seating at the S. end was not originally stepped; it retains its enriched bench-ends; the lower seats are modern, but the two return lengths have 17th-century carved and pierced scrolls. The rest of the ground-floor seating is panelled and across the ends of the front seats is a second pair of carved and pierced scrolls. Between the columns runs a rail with carved standards. The Vice-chancellor's chair, in the middle of the curved seating, has a panelled back with swags, cornice and an eagle; the arms are carved as winged sphinxes and the box seat has carved swags and huskpendants; in front of the chair is a desk with carved brackets and a turned and carved stem. Flanking this chair are chairs with cartouches and scrolls on the backs and shaped arms. Two other pairs of chairs in the seating are of similar design, two of which have bracketed desks with turned and carved shafts. Near the Vice-chancellor's seat is a pair of seats, set on the benches, and having scrolled backs and arms. The portable rostrum is largely modern, but with it are two old chairs with shaped backs and arms and partly turned legs. On the S. gallery is a large modern organ.

Carried round the N. end of the theatre is an enclosure-wall with railings and stone piers finished with carved busts of philosophers. The enclosurewall on the W. is solid and finished with a cornice and pediment; it is divided into bays by piers with restored vases and the bays had recessed panels designed for the reception of the Arundel marbles; most of these have been altered and filled in and the wall itself has been cut into by the later Old Ashmolean Building.