As with much of his other work, Sir George Gilbert Scott’s commission to enlarge Exeter College, Oxford, stemmed from new legislation and this work established him as an architect for the universities that he had not been given the chance to enter as a student. But he only mentions Exeter College in his Recollections as among his ‘Works to be noted since 1845’, and the Rector’s House, along with other secular buildings, further on. Scott’s coyness over Exeter College, as elsewhere in the Recollections, was probably because of family involvement. When he was writing his Recollections early in 1864, his third son, Albert Henry (1844-65), had just left home to study at Exeter College. Whether Albert had obtained his place through his father’s connections with the college authorities cannot be ascertained, but Scott obviously knew the Rector, Dr. John Lightfoot (1803-87), and Albert was the first Scott to go to Oxford rather than Cambridge.
The fact that Scott was chosen in 1854, in preference to his more Ecclesiologically correct colleagues, seems to indicate the extent of the swing away from the High Church ideals of the Oxford Movement, which had dominated religious argument in the university from 1835 until the departure of John Henry Newman (1801-90) in 1843. Although Carpenter was busy elsewhere, in 1854 he had built nothing at Oxford. Butterfield had restored the chapel of Merton College, but Scott’s massive counter-blast against the Oxford Movement, in his Martyrs’ Memorial, only a few yards from Exeter, was inescapable. He had also built a small church at Headington Quarry, on the eastern edge of the city, in 1848.
In the early 1850’s there were demands for the university to be modernised and become more accessible to a wider range of society. This led to an Act of Parliament in 1854. Entry to the university was no longer restricted to members of the Church of England and teachers were allowed to marry. Exeter’s building programme was a response to the need to accommodate more students required by these reforms. However, this could only be achieved by proving a bigger and better college chapel. The old seventeenth century chapel was too small and the only possible direction to expand it was to the east. But to enable this to take place, the Rector’s house, which stood immediately to the east, would have to be demolished. Various alternatives were being considered when Scott was appointed in 1854, including re-siting the chapel on the east side of the quadrangle where its entrance would be opposite the main entrance to the college, and even as late as 1856, there were ‘repeated debates’ about the site of the new chapel.
However, on his appointment, Scott started by extending an existing 1830 Gothic style range westwards along Broad Street with a new entrance tower and a range of student rooms on the opposite side of the entrance. The new range cost nearly £4,000 and it was finished in 1856 with the completion of the tower, by which time the arguments over the position of the chapel had been finally settled. Scott was, perhaps, rather relieved when it was decided that the Rector would have to move so that the chapel could be rebuilt on its old site where, like the Sainte-Chapelle, it could only be seen from within the quadrangle and its east end would be unobstructed by other buildings. However, like his French exemplar, he managed to give his chapel a presence beyond the surrounding buildings by proving it with a fleche which forms a prominent termination to the view along Ship Street from the Cornmarket in the city centre.
The Sainte-Chapelle provided Scott with a general shape and superficial appearance for Exeter, but his detailed design is very different. Although the same length, his building is a much more solid structure, with five bays of three-light Geometric windows separated by wide buttresses, compared to four bays of four-light windows separated by slender buttresses of the medieval building. Scott had decided to use proper heavy stone vaulting but characteristically felt it was necessary to sacrifice the light and airiness, which had been achieved six hundred years earlier, for Victorian solidity. Externally he was also unable to reproduce the soaring verticality of his exemplar, as the Sainte-Chapelle is a two-storey building and Exeter has only a single storey.
The foundation stone of the chapel was laid on 29 November 1856 and the builder was J. R. Symm of Oxford who also carried out much of the woodwork.
The stone carving, including the tympanum over the main door and some excellent naturalistic leaf capitals on the internal screen, were by Philip. Internally it is most impressive, with the fifty feet high vaulting in bands of Bath stone and darker stone from Temple Guiting in the Cotswolds, coloured marble columns, mosaics by Salviati and ironwork by Skidmore. The chapel cost £17,000, and was consecrated on 18 October 1859. It was later enriched with stained glass by Clayton and Bell and a tapestry designed by Burne-Jones and made by William Morris. Morris and Burne-Jones both entered Exeter College in 1853 intending to become priests and were students when Scott embarked on the reconstruction programme. Perhaps Morris’s dislike of Scott’s work, which culminated in a fierce campaign against his restorations shortly before Scott’s death, stemmed from the huge Victorianisation of the college which was going on whilst he was a student there.
In 1856 Scott rebuilt the college library on the site which had earlier been proposed for the chapel, between the quadrangle and the Bodleian Library. It is a two-storey building with a turret staircase in the angle between it and a single-storey wing running parallel to the end of the Bodleian. This is an attractive-looking building that fits well into the college garden between the rear of the old quadrangle and the great mass of the Bodleian Library. In 1857 Scott built the new house for the Rector, Dr. Lightfoot, facing the eastern end of his chapel. Lightfoot had been the Rector since 1854 and presided over the whole building programme. His entire adult life was centred on the college, having been a student there, and he eventually died, some thirty years later, while still occupying the house that Scott had built for him, which is the least successful of Scott’s five buildings at Exeter College. In the summer of 1858 work started on Scott’s last building at Exeter. This was an extension from the rear of the Broad Street range towards the chapel. It was demolished in 1964, when new student rooms were built to the west and the quadrangle was enlarged to provide access to them. The loss of one of Scott’s minor works is more than compensated by a new view of one of his best buildings.
Scott’s Recollections, II 81, 273.
Pevsner, N. and Sherwood, J., Oxfordshire, Buildings of England (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1974), pp. 136-7, 161, 337.
Morris, J., The Oxford Book of Oxford (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978), p. 245.
Victoria County History, Oxfordshire, vol. III, p. 118.
The Builder, 2 July 1859, p. 440.
Jackson, Sir T. G., Bt. R. A., Recollections, The Life and Travels of a Victorian Architect (Unicorn Press, London, 2003), p. 51.
Boase, F., Modern English Biography (Frank Cass, London, 1965), vol. 6.