I was interested to read Dan MacCannell’s excellent article about mapping Oxford (OT Trinity 2017), with its references to William Williams’s Oxonia Depicta (1733), a volume which he describes as ‘significant’ and ‘curious’. It will certainly prove to be curious for anyone hoping to use it for research into the history of Oxford’s college buildings and gardens, because as a realistic picture of Oxford it is significantly flawed. Much of what Williams depicted was never actually realised; it seems likely that he was paid to indulge collegiate fantasies about building projects which they would never have the means to realise (a common enough tale — see Howard Colvin’s Unbuilt Oxford, 1983). The most glaring example of this is Trinity College’s great formal garden with griffins atop posts. This impressive engraving is repeatedly reproduced in guides and histories of Oxford, and is also unquestioningly included on Trinity’s website even today, when there is no evidence it was ever actually realised. It would not be fair to cast Williams himself as the villain of the piece here because it was not uncommon for such projections or plans to be published -– they appear with regularity in the Oxford Almanack, too. But such ‘evidence’ should be treated with care.
Incidentally, the one structural element of Oxford’s colleges consistently left out of maps and guidebooks of every date is the principals’ gardens. Even today they are often unmarked on college plans, and they have been left as blanks on the otherwise comprehensive online virtual tour of Oxford concocted by the chemistry department several years ago (see www.chem.ox.ac.uk/oxfordtour/). The Rector’s Garden at Exeter College, for example, is hidden away on the other side of the library to the Fellows’ Garden, while New College’s large and bucolic Warden’s Garden is accessed via the bridge that crosses New College Lane. These private domains have been jealously guarded over the centuries, though incursions do occur, as currently at St John’s, where the President’s Garden is being compromised to make way for a new library building. The principals’ gardens are all clearly marked on the college plans in my own book, Oxford College Gardens (2015).