Image 1: The Danby Gate, north face. Architect: Nicholas Stone, 1632-1633. Photo: © Brian Deegan. Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0.
Image 2: Danby Gate, south face. Source: Dylan Moore. Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0.
Image 3-4: Danby 3D image. Source: 3D photogrammetry by Jamie Cameron, 2016.
Image 5: The first two images collected here originate from Sebastiano Serlio's Five bookes of architecture, translated by Robert Peake (1611), fol. 23v-24r. Serlio depicts an arch of very similar proportions to Stone’s with several analogous features. Source: Glasgow School of Art. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.5. The third image is a detail from David Loggan, Oxonia illustrata (1675), plate xii. High-resolution image available in the Wellcome Collection, London.
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).
Detailed commentary. 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.
Together, these embellishments reveal how Stone prized heavy, rustic texture above readily legible proportion or clear classical form.
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.
Credits: Howard Hotson (May 2018)