The cathedral restoration, which started in 1870, was Sir George Gilbert Scott’s most important restoration in Oxford. Oxford Cathedral is, in fact, a tiny building which is almost engulphed by the majestic buildings of Christ Church College. It was Scott’s smallest cathedral and its modesty seems more appropriate to its other function as the chapel of the college. The Dean of the cathedral is also the head of the college, while the Bishop of Oxford has always been a rather remote figure with his palace eventually at Cuddesdon, some five miles away. However, Scott is credited with having brought about a general recognition of the quality of the architecture of the little cathedral.
In February 1847 The Ecclesiologist published a damning critique of the state and use of the building. There was ‘never a sermon preached nor a Communion offered for the benefit of the people of the diocese’. The ‘episcopal throne was meanness itself’ and the author was particularly incensed that the upper part of the south transept had been walled-off for the ‘unworthy purpose’ of providing a dwelling-house for the verger. Thereafter, interest in the building seems to have grown and to such an extent that in 1850 Professor Willis of Cambridge visited Oxford and presented a report to the Archaeological Institute on his findings. In the summer of 1855 Oxford Cathedral had a new dean, with the appointment by Palmerston of the Headmaster of Westminster School, Henry George Liddell (1811-1898). Liddell was a great reformer and one of the reasons that he left Westminster was that he was frustrated in his plans to either move or expand the school. While there he must have encountered Scott, particularly after Scott’s ‘little disturbance’ with his school boys at the entrance to the Chapter House. He was, however, a Christ Church man, having been a student and tutor at the college. Today his particular claim to fame stems from his daughter, for whom another don, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, wrote Alice in Wonderland under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll.
Liddell was intent on making the church less of a college chapel and more of a cathedral. He abolished the daily college prayers and made the bishop a welcome visitor. In the year after his installation, John Billing (1816-1863) was commissioned to restore the interior of the cathedral. He removed the galleries and tall pews, repaired the stonework on the Norman piers and installed central heating. He died in 1863 before he could start the next stage of his restoration.
Scott’s numerous visits to Oxford meant that not only was he well-known there, but he had had many opportunities to study the old building. He was also known to the bishop, Samuel Wilberforce, since their Aylesbury brush twenty years earlier and he had come to regard Scott as a ‘safe’ architect. In 1869 Scott’s son Alwyne had entered Christ Church as a Commoner to study Civil Law and in 1872 Dukinfield was also admitted to the college. So with contacts in both the cathedral and the college, it was perhaps inevitable that the Dean and Chapter would turn to the now famous Scott to complete the restoration.
In June 1869 he produced his report on the cathedral. As usual, this is based on a meticulous examination of the old building. Scott’s approach is generally objective and it is only when he comes to describe what he calls the ‘mutilations or ill-judged alterations of the late periods’ that his feelings emerge. Wolsey’s shortening of the nave is, of course, ‘unfortunate’, the wholesale alteration of Decorated and Perpendicular windows to suit the Flemish glass is ‘much to be deplored’, while other windows were ‘impoverished’ of their tracery at about the same time. Scott concluded his report with a reassurance to his clients of his conservative approach to restoration:
As any attempt to restore the original design, pure and simple, would obviously involve the destruction of parts which no one would for a moment hear of losing, it seems to follow that where such restoration would, in minor cases, cause the loss of parts, which though of dubious merit, still belong to the history of the building during the continuance of our national styles of architecture, such restorations should not be attempted without serious consideration.
This is an astonishing statement and, in view of what he was intending to do to the east end of the cathedral, it is difficult not to charge Scott with bad faith. He noted that the east end had had ‘a large circular window, with other windows below it’, but these were removed during the fourteenth century ‘and a large Decorated window of five lights substituted’. This was reduced to a three light window in the seventeenth century, presumably to accommodate the Flemish glass, but in 1696 a new east window, designed by Sir James Thornhill, was presented to the cathedral. This survived until 1846 when Henri Gerente was commissioned to install a new window ‘of a most lurid and garish description’ to mark the three hundreth anniversary of the founding of the college. After Gerente’s death in 1849, the work was taken over by his brother, Alfred, and it was eventually fitted into the ‘debased’ Decorated tracery of the seventeenth century window in 1854.
In spite of his reassurances, Scott decided that the major part of his restoration would be to return the east end of the cathedral to what he was sure was its original form. He may have regretted the disappearance of an important work by his friends the Gerente brothers, but the debased window had to go. Work started on his restoration in 1870. The builders were J. R. Symm of St. Giles, Oxford, who had served him so well on Exeter Chapel. But Scott could not resist the temptation to indulge in another architectural jigsaw to discover the original east end. Following, according to The Architect, ‘undoubted evidence of the original design’, he placed a great wheel-window above an arcaded passage at triforium level with two Norman-style windows below. Scott’s friend, John Henry Parker, was so convinced of the integrity of Scott’s findings that he used this wheel-window as an example of a round Norman window in his 1881 edition of Rickman’s Attempt. In reality, it is a replica of the Norman east window of Patrixbourne Church, which Scott had restored in 1857.
Scott also opened up and restored two Norman windows on either side of the sanctuary. He restored most of the mullions and tracery that had been removed to take the Flemish glass, removed seventeenth century screens in the north transept and rebuilt the upper part of the south choir aisle wall. At the end of the south transept he evicted the verger from his three-storied accommodation, removed the wall that separated him from the church and continued the transept ceiling as far as the southern end of the transept. Below this he provided a new vaulted vestry at triforium level with openings into the church. He then removed the organ from the transept, where it had been placed by Billing, into the west end of the nave and so opened up the view into the transept.
Cracks were discovered in the central tower, because, so it was said, of the strain of its great peal of eleven bells. This was the ideal excuse for Scott to remove the bells and their ringing chamber and to open up the inside of the tower to reveal its lantern lit by two levels of Norman arcades. Scott then built a timber structure on the roof of the great staircase in the south-east corner of the Great Quadrangle, into which the bells were transferred. This structure was ridiculed by Dodgson as ‘a tintinnabulatory tea-chest’, and in 1873 the College decided to build a proper tower to contain the bells and invited several architects to submit designs. Scott, perhaps out of favour because of the unfortunate ‘tea-chest’, was no longer the automatic choice of the college but it hoped that he would not ‘object to be included’ on a list along with other architects. Bodley, Jackson, Deane and Champneys were among those who eventually agreed to submit designs. Bodley’s design was for a squat keep-like structure surmounted by a huge wooden lantern, Jackson’s was a 170 feet tall tower but Scott, typically, sent in five designs. These were for low towers as he was anxious not to produce anything that would compete with the nearby cathedral tower. All his towers were rejected in favour of Bodley’s great keep. This was eventually built between 1876 and 1879 without its lantern.
Scott’s most successful improvement to the cathedral was to give it a proper western approach from the Great Quadrangle. Before it had only been possible to enter the cathedral by going through the staircase hall of the college and then through the cloisters. Scott extended the nave one bay westwards and made a new entrance by cutting through two of the canons’ houses. Compared with his drastic re-shaping of the east end, this part of Scott’s work is remarkably self-effacing. So much so that The Architect felt that the entrance could have been more imposing if he had not made an effort to preserve the run of blind arcading around the quadrangle. By October 1872 The Architect was able to report that the fitting-out of the cathedral was nearing completion. A new black and white pavement was laid in the choir in 1871, with representations of the four cardinal virtues in the central aisle. These are said to be of Maltese workmanship and copied from the church of the Knights of St. John at Malta, but the technique of filling incised white marble with black cement appears to be the same as that which Scott was then using for his designs in the choir of Gloucester Cathedral. Billings’ woodwork was ejected from the choir and Scott provided new seating following the usual chapel arrangement of inward facing benches, but most unusually extending this arrangement into the nave. At the back of the choir stalls is an extensive run of ironwork by Skidmore. The work was completed in 1872 at a total cost of £21,000. Most of this had come from college funds but there were appeals to former and present college members. Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales each gave £100.
Royal Commission for Historic Monuments, Oxford, 1939, pp. 40-1, 45, 133 (b).
Kelly’s Directory of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire (Kelly’s Directories Ltd, London, 1911), Oxfordshire, p. 167.
Warner, S. A., Oxford Cathedral (S.P.C.K., London, 1924), pp. 3, 14, 40-2, 68-9, 94-5, 114, 133, 159-60.
King, R. J., A Handbook of the Cathedrals of England, Eastern Division: Oxford, Peterborough, Norwich, Ely, Lincoln (John Murray, London, 1881), note 8, pp. 45-55, 49.
Pevsner, N., Some Architectural Writers of the Nineteenth Century (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1972), p. 57.
King, R. J., A Handbook of the Cathedrals of England, Eastern Division: Oxford, Peterborough, Norwich, Ely, Lincoln (John Murray, London, 1862), pp. 11, 15, plate III.
Pugh (ed.), The Letter Books of Samuel Wilberforce (Bucks Record Society, 1970), p. 162.
Forster J., Alumni Oxonienses, p. 1263 (1891), see also http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=1270
Buxton, J., and Williams, P., New College Oxford, 1379-1979 (Warden and Fellows of New College Oxford, Oxford, 1979), p. 246.
The Architect, IX, 19 October 1872, p. 217.
Scott’s Recollections, II 267.
Rickman, T., Gothic Architecture: An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England, From the Conquest to the Reformation, with a Sketch of the Grecian and Roman Orders (Parker and Co., London, 1881), p. 48.
Newman, J., Kent, North-East and East, Buildings of England (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 399.
Colvin, H., Unbuilt Oxford (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1983), pp. 136-7.
Jackson, Sir T. G., Bt. R. A., Recollections, The Life and Travels of a Victorian Architect (Unicorn Press, London, 2003), p. 127.
Pevsner, N. and Sherwood, J., Oxfordshire, Buildings of England (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1974), p. 112.
The Architect, X, 18 October 1873, p. 201.
Scott, G. G., Remarks on Secular and Domestic Architecture, Present and Future (John Murray, London, 2nd ed. 1858), p. 71.
The Builder, XXX, 12 October 1872, p. 802.