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 death of the Rev. John Keble in 1866 was the occasion for putting into operation a scheme for a new collegiate foundation which had been discussed in Oxford for some twenty years previously. It was widely felt that in 19th-century Oxford there was a need for a new college which would make all the academical and other privileges of Oxford life accessible to men of limited means and also maintain the traditional association of university education with the Church of England. The results of a public appeal issued after Keble's death enabled the college to open in 1870. Archbishop Longley had laid the first stone of the buildings in 1868; they did not reach their present form until 1882. The chapel, completed in 1876, was the gift of William Gibbs, Esq., of Tyntesfield, Somerset, and the hall and the library, completed two years later, were the equally munificent gift of his sons, Messrs. Antony and Martin Gibbs.
Shortly before it opened, the college obtained a Royal Charter of Incorporation which laid down its constitution and named as the first Warden the Rev. E. S. Talbot, senior student of Christ Church (and afterwards Bishop successively of Rochester, Southwark, and Winchester). The charter did not define the relation of the college to the University, but in 1871 Keble College was admitted by the Convocation of the University to the privileges defined in a statute on New Foundations which had been passed earlier that year. The college was thus able to offer its members everything expected from an Oxford education, while ordering its corporate life in such a way that poorer men could live together within its walls without embarrassment. It is safe to assert that before the modern introduction of extensive State assistance to undergraduates Keble made a university education possible to some hundreds of men who would otherwise have been debarred from it for financial reasons. Though the college has naturally attracted many sons of the clergy it has never made a special point of producing candidates for Holy Orders. Its members have, in fact, served Church and State in every kind of profession which men normally enter after taking an Oxford degree.
The charter placed the government of the college in the hands of the Warden and Council, and gave the Warden absolute power in all matters of internal administration. The tutors had no constitutional position, but the charter provided that the council (which has always been composed of distinguished non-resident members of the University) might devolve such of its powers as it saw fit upon the tutors. In accordance with this provision, the tutors became fellows in 1930, and the whole internal administration of the college was made over to the Warden and fellows.
The college has never been provided with general endowment. Numerous benefactors have given funds on trust for the award of scholarships and prizes, and these are now sufficient to maintain a respectable number of awards in the usual subjects. The organ scholarship in particular has brought to Oxford a series of outstanding musicians.
Among the portraits in the hall, the following are noteworthy: those of John Keble (G. Richmond, 1876), Dr. Talbot (G. Richmond, 1876), Dr. Lock, the third Warden (C. W. Furse, 1895), Dr. Kidd, the fourth Warden (Henry Lamb, 1932), and William Gibbs (W. B. Richmond). Holman Hunt's wellknown picture, The Light of the World (1853), hangs in the chapel.
The library has received many gifts of books and manuscripts. Dr. Liddon bequeathed to it not only his theological library but also a valuable set of liturgical books and illuminated manuscripts, and a rich collection of coins ranging from the earliest Greek issues to those of medieval and modern England. In 1913 a further notable collection of illuminated manuscripts formed by Sir Charles Brooke was given to the library by his brother Canon Brooke. This collection includes particularly fine examples of medieval French, Italian, and German work.
The buildings of Keble College form the most important single design of the architect William Butterfield (1814–1900). When he came to plan them he already had behind him the crowded achievement of over a quarter of a century in the building of churches and schools, and had risen from his beginnings as an unknown protégé of the Cambridge Camden Society to a position of European eminence. This recognition he had obtained by the courage and originality of his thought, despite his predilection for forms and colours unattractive to the ordinary observer—a predilection that grew with years. With him moral obligations must control all aesthetic impulses, and he may even be suspected of wounding the senses deliberately as a vicarious act of mortification.
At first sight Keble College commands attention by its colouring. Its walls are built of red bricks striped and chequered throughout with black, some bands and all dressings being of light-coloured stone. White gault bricks also appear everywhere except in the chapel, and are now most unpleasantly conspicuous by their immunity from weather-stain where all else is becoming mellow. 'Constructional polychromy' of this kind was an article of faith with Butterfield, and buildings of his in which it does not appear are few. Convinced of the impermanence of painting he rejected it as completely as possible even in the design of interiors, using mosaic and tiles for pictorial decoration, and inlays of marble or mastic for patterns or diapers. In the wonderfully rich interior of the chapel at Keble hardly anything is susceptible to dimming by decay.
Stronger even than his preoccupation with polychromy was Butterfield's almost passionate pursuit of what he conceived to be architectural truth. Dissimulation was no less odious to him than simulation; not only must every revelation be real but every reality must be revealed. Hand in hand with his truthfulness went a scrupulous utilitarianism, a quality often found in British architects of his day. Certainly, like Pugin, he had convinced himself that the truly useful must always be Gothic; but within the limits imposed by this postulate his reasoning was delicate and just. A small result of it can be seen here at the west end of the chapel where the chimney flues of the rooms adjacent, being embodied in the design of the chapel itself, are thereby carried high enough for them not to smoke. This little piece of good sense is extremely characteristic of its author.
There is, however, one major peculiarity in the buildings at Keble College that distinguishes them from all buildings previous to them in their kind. The primitive arrangement in which there are many staircases each serving two sets of rooms only on each floor—this arrangement has been discarded, and the sets of rooms are approached by means of passages as in all modern plans of other descriptions.
Except at the extreme southern end of the whole design there is now no part of William Butterfield's conception that has not been realized. Nor has anything been added thereto except the work involved in forming a small chapel on the south of the college chapel itself. (The design of this alteration made in the year 1892 is due to J. T. Micklethwaite and very properly avoids any imitation of Butterfield's peculiarities.) It is therefore possible to appreciate here without hindrance the ideal of a complete Anglican college realized by a Victorian architect of great powers and suitable idiosyncrasy. The predominance of the chapel, the proper character given to each separate part, the Gothic flavour pervading everything, together with the careful avoidance of all mere copying of details—these are the design's leading characteristics. Critics of all schools have united in according it a high place in architectural history.