Merton College, 1608-10

Merton College, 1608-10

Image 1: Detail,Tower of the Four Orders, Fellows' Quadrangle, Merton College. Photo: Robin Stevens, , 28 April 2007. Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Image 3: The Fellows' Building, seen from Christ Church Meadow. PhotoChristine Matthews, CC BY-SA 2.0. The exit from the Fellows' Quadrangle can be seen behind the gate leading to the Meadow.

Commentary. Between 1608 and 1610, Merton College constructed the Fellows' Quadrangle, so-called to distinguish it from the fourteenth-century Bachelors' Quadrangle, disparagingly known to this day as 'Mob Quad'.  In several respects, it was a landmark building.  For one thing, it began a marked acceleration in the rate at which the University community was building.  The first three-storeyed quadrangle in Oxford, it was also 'the first large-scale extension to a medieval Oxford college, and it heralded a period of intensive building activity which lasted until the Civil War, as the colleges vied with each other to provide more accommodation for the growing numbers of students, and especially for the lucrative fee-paying commoners.’* 

The Fellows’ Quad also marked a change in the way in which Oxford built, a change related to an intellectual agenda of great future significance.  Like most of the residential buildings in early seventeenth-century colleges, its general plan and most of its architectural details were deeply traditional. But one unmistakeable feature struck a self-consciously innovative note and established a trend which culminated a decade later in the Schools Quadrangle: the so-called ‘frontispiece’ or ‘tower of the four orders’.

The idea was not a new one: as we have seen, precedents had been accumulating in country houses even in England for several decades. But Oxford built little in these years and remained almost impervious to classical architecture.  It was not until the first decade of the seventeenth-century that Merton created Oxford's first textbook piece of architectural humanism.

To describe the frontispiece in Fellows’ Quad as a textbook of classical architecture is not altogether inappropriate, for its differences from earlier examples are as striking as its similarities.  The other examples all adorn towers marking the main entrances into grand structures.  Merton’s example is no tower: it’s merely a superficial appliqué on a traditional range of buildings.  Nor is it properly even a ‘frontispiece’: it marks, not the entrance to the college, but the exit from a back quadrangle, and leads only to a narrow path between the outer wall of the building and the inner wall of the city. Its purpose is purely academic: to display erudition and to instruct. Oxford, which had previously possessed scarcely a single classical column, could now study double pairs of the four main orders – Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite – each meticulously proportioned and correctly detailed.

To be sure, the fellows who conceived this innovation were not yet very fluent in the classical language of architecture.  Aside from the columns themselves, this monument’s classicism is either misunderstood (most obviously in the tiny pediment perched unconvincingly on top) or mixed with traditional gothic decoration (such as the two ogee-headed niches and the Perpendicular blind arcading).  A central niche with an octagonal crown – perhaps intended for King James I, whose arms are emblazoned above it – remains empty.  Yet almost before construction was completed in 1610, this innovation in one of Oxford’s oldest colleges had provoked imitation in its youngest: Wadham.

* Geoffrey Tyack, Oxford: An Architectural Guide (Oxford, 1998), 88.

Credits: Howard Hotson (September 2016)