Between two worlds: The Danby Gate to the Physic Garden in Oxford, 1632-3

Between two worlds: The Danby Gate to the Physic Garden in Oxford, 1632-3

Like the anatomy theatre, the botanical garden is a site of medical research which spread from Italy in the sixteenth century to northern Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth. Like the anatomy theatre, the botanical garden also occupied a rather awkward, liminal position in the early modern university, straddling the divide between liberal, theoretical science and manual, practical art. This awkward position is evident in the gate to the oldest university botanical garden in England -- the Danby Gate to the Physic Garden in Oxford (founded 1621), and also in its first gardeners, Jacob Bobart the Elder and the Younger.


Marking the main entrance to the oldest botanical garden in England, the Danby Gate provides eloquent testimony to the awkward position of the botanical garden as a new site of medical knowledge within the universities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In order to understand that testimony, however, we need to understand the architectural language in which this monument is written.

The most significant feature of the gate has not attracted the attention it deserves: the north face, through which one enters the garden from the city, is heavily 'rusticated' (Images 1 and 3); the south face, through which one returns from the garden into the city, is sheathed in plain, faced stone (Images 2 and 4). The gate therefore marks a transition from the urban context of the university, as a place of liberal learning conveyed by the spoken and written word, to the rustic, semi-rural context of the garden, as a place of artisanal learning involving manual work and physical labour. This corresponds to the liminal location of the garden itself, located just outside the medieval city walls (running north and south from the Eastgate, marked no. 46 on Images 6 and 7), on the site of the cemetery of Oxford's former Jewish community, expelled in 1290.


In this history of classical architecture in Oxford, the Danby Gate holds a surprisingly important place. As Geoffrey Tyack has pointed out (Oxford: An Architectural Guide, 107), ‘Oxford’s first consistently classical structures were the gateways to the University’s new Physic Garden’.

Their architect, Nicholas Stone (1585/8–1647), was master mason of the greatest classical building in England before the age of Wren – Indigo Jones’s Banqueting House (1619-21) at the royal palace of Whitehall – and he became master mason to the crown in 1632, the year in which work on the Danby Gate began.  But ‘stylistically his buildings fall midway between the learned classicism of Jones and the uncouth “Artisan Mannerist” work of his own master mason contemporaries’ (Adam White in ODNB). This is nowhere more evident than the Danby Gate itself, constructed in 1632-3.  ‘With Indigo Jones this has nothing to do, with Italy everything, but not Palladio, rather Serlio’s Extraordinary Book of archways which show that delight in the alternation of smooth and heavily rusticated parts’ which is a characteristic feature of this structure (Sherwood and Pevsner, Oxfordshire, 267). 

Architectural analysis 

The justice of this judgment can be confirmed by comparing the Danby Gate with its probable source: in this instance, a two-page spread from book IV, ch. 6 of the recent English translation of Sebastiano Serlio (1475-c.1554) by Robert Peake (Five bookes of architecture, 1611, fol. 23v-24r; see Image 5).  Serlio depicts an arch of very similar proportions to Stone’s with several analogous features. In both cases, the central arch is flanked by pairs of Doric pilasters standing on a high base with round-headed rectangular niches between them and a triangular pediment above. Closer comparison shows, however, that Stone accentuated the Mannerist features of Serlio’s design, sometimes departing from the classical orders altogether.

For instance, Stone’s pilasters feature alternating bands of smooth and rusticated stone in the Mannerist fashion popularized by Serlio and reflected in the left-hand image from the Five bookes (where the rustication is rock faced rather than vermiculated). But Stone also placed rustication on every available surface on the north face of his gate: it is found in an alternating rhythm around the central arch and two flanking niches, in straps across the niches, in panels below them, and in a band running along the base.  As can be best seen on  on the 3D image of the north face (Image 3), all of these features wrap around the two exterior sides of the gate, encrusting the body of the structure with heavy texture which obscures the classical orders themselves.

This texture is further enriched by three additional elements: the panelled doors (missing both from Serlio’s design and from the Danby Gate today), the multi-paned semi-circular windows above them, and the sculpture added to the three frontal niches.  Between the pilasters in both designs are inset round-headed rectangular niches: Stone has elongated these niches and eliminated the square panels which Serlio placed above them.  These frontal niches were originally empty (as the niches on either side of the north face remain today: see Image 2), but in 1695 they were filled with statutes of Charles I and II by John Vanderstein, who added the bust of Danby himself in the central pediment (Sherwood and Pevsner, Oxfordshire, 267).

A similar contrast is evident in the differing treatments of the roof structure.  Serlio’s design is straightforwardly classical: the arch is capped by a simple triangular pediment supported by a horizontal band (called an entablature) which is recognizably Doric (the most easily recognizable feature of a Doric entablature is the ‘frieze’ punctuated by vertically channelled tablets called ‘triglyphs’). Stone’s arrangement is far more complicated.  For one thing, each pair of pilasters is provided with its own small pediment, which projects forward to create a more complicated rhythm. Moreover, Serlio’s simple Doric entablature is replaced by an eclectic arrangement of Stone’s devising which departs completely from classical precedent.  The cornice (the uppermost part of the entablature) is distorted in two respects: its central section (the ‘corona’) is grossly enlarged to carry an inscription, indicating that the gate was erected ‘to the glory of God, in honour of King Charles, and for the use of the University and the public’; and the lower part of the cornice is richly elaborated and deeply inset. The central section of the entablature, the frieze, is reduced in height and the Doric triglyphs are removed to create space for a second inscription indicating that the gate was gifted by Henry Danvers, 1st Earl of Danby, in 1631. Still more inappropriate to the Doric order is the fragmentation of the entire entablature and its projection forward above the four pilasters to support the small pediments on either side of the arch.

A close reading of this architectural language therefore reveals that Stone has consistently departed from the precedent provided by Serlio to pack as much heavy, rustic texture into the north face of the Danby Gate as possible, even at the cost of readily legible proportion or clear classical form.

This decision is even more unmistakable when viewed in contrast to south facade of the gate which, in another striking departure from classical convention, is completely different in character. Stone never visited Italy, and this anomaly is no doubt partly the expression of an encounter with classical architecture mediated through two-dimensional engravings such as those in Serlio, rather through direct experience of classical buildings in the round: the same 'textbook' approach can be seen in the other early essays in classical architecture in Oxford in this period: the towers of the orders in Merton (1608-10), Wadham (1610-13), and the Schools Quadrangle (1613-24).

Conclusion. Yet the stark contrast between the heavy rustication of the north facade and the smooth, finely dressed stone of the (equally unclassical) south side of the gate eloquently also expressed a more significant intention. This gate is a portal between two worlds and perhaps also between two time periods. To the north is the traditional world of the university, in which learning in the liberal arts and sciences is conveyed through the spoken word of lectures and disputations and the written word of manuscript and printed books, many of the most canonical (not least in the field of medicine) passed down from Greek and Roman antiquity.  To the south is the new world of the botanical garden, in which plants from corners of the world unknown to the ancients are cultivated with practices far more closely resembling the manual labour of the peasant than the intellectual work of the professor designed to generate new knowledge as well as to confirm old. The starkly contrasting faces of the Danby Gate express a rather uncomfortable awareness of the novelty of bringing mechanical and liberal learning together in this way, and perhaps even a desire to erect a clear boundary to ensure that their mingling does not disrupt the ancient hierarchies of the university itself. 

Excursus. Another gateway in the Italian Mannerist style was constructed about the same time in the river-front entrance to York House in London, acquired by George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, from Sir Francis Bacon, after his fall in 1622.  Striking similarities suggest the involvement of Nicholas Stone in its construction.  These include the rather crude Doric pilasters with vermiculated rustication, the rustication extending (in this case) completely around the three arches, the fragmented entablature (in this case, interrupted completely over the central arch), and the enlarged cornice.  But the York House Water Gate is even more Mannerist, and far less classical, than the Danby Gate: this is evident especially in the grotesquely enlarged keystones of the three arches and the circular pediment, open along its base, which covers only the central arch.

Other examples: the botanical garden in Pisa 

The use of extreme forms of 'rustication' to mark the entrance into botanical gardens and museums was by no means confined to Oxford or to the seventeenth century. Image 8 depicts a new façade added in the mid-eighteenth century to the botanical museum in Pisa, within one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. Known as the 'Palazzina delle conchiglie' ('the little palace of shells') it is encrusted with shells, stones, and fossils in a manner typical of the grottos of the period. The video below provides a first impression of the history of the botanical garden in Pisa. 

Credits: Howard Hotson (May 2018)