Wadham College, 1610-13

Wadham College, 1610-13

Images 1-2. Frontispiece, Front Quadrangle, Wadham College, Oxford, 1610-13. Photos by David Nicholls, 21 March 2013: here and here here. Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0.

Description. 'Wadham is the only college [in Oxford] which was built all at one go and has remained virtually unchanged since....' (or at least had when Sherwood and Pevsner first published their survey of Oxfordshire in 1974). 'The foundation date is 1610; building began in the same year and was completed in 1613.'  Also unusual for the period is the rigorous symmetry of the front quadrangle, which serves to focus attention on its most significant feature: the four-tiered frontispiece featuring three of the four main orders of classical architecture and dating between those at Merton and the Schools Quadrangle.  

Analysis. As in the case of Merton, this attempt at classicism is mixed with traditional elements, most notably the 'segmental motif with coarse cresting' at the very top, noted by Sherwood and Pevsner (Oxfordshire, 213, 215), and the flattened gothic-arched entrance supported by crude and unclassical pilasters. But in other respects, it represents an advance on the earlier experiment at Merton. Although not strictly a frontispiece marking the entrance to the college, it does at least stand directly opposite the entrance and mark the main passage into the quadrangle's principal chambers: the chapel and dining hall. The niche under the royal arms (which has remained empty in Merton) is occupied in Wadham by a statue of King James I, covered by a elaborate canopy and flanked by coupled Corinthian columns and pilasters. Below the king are two niches occupied by the college's founder and foundress, Sir Nicholas and Lady Dorothy Wadham of Merifield in Somerset, bracketed by pairs of Ionic columns.  At ground level, the entrance through which college fellows and students pass is marked by coupled Roman Doric columns.  In the Wadham frontispiece, in other words, the freshly rediscovered hierarchy of the classical orders of architecture reinforces a visual representation of the traditional social and political order.  The earth-bound language of classical architecture, so different from otherworldly Gothic, is immediately deployed in Oxford to celebrate secular authority.

The original design of the frontispieces in the Canterbury Quadrangle of St John's College, begun in 1631, may have called for three superimposed classical orders; but after construction began, the design appears to have been modified to include only two: Howard Colvin, The Canterbury Quadrangle (Oxford, 1988), pp. 33-8 and fig. 32.

Credits: Howard Hotson (September 2016)