Peter Whitfield charts Oxford’s changing visual imprint on the page from the 17th century onwards.

By Peter Whitfield

For almost three centuries Oxford inspired a number of works that published high-quality engravings of all its important buildings and sites.

The series begins with the famous Oxonia Illustrata, published in 1675 by David Loggan, which contains some forty views of the colleges and University buildings. Loggan’s line-work was meticulously captured in these copperplate engravings, and his artistry was highly imaginative. He constructed bird’s-eye views that enable us to see into the quadrangles and appreciate the layouts of the hall, the chapel, the lodgings and the gardens. Some views were taken from nearby towers, but others must have been built up from the artist’s imagination. His view of Christ Church is particularly  magnificent, and had to be double-sized to fit everything in. Nevertheless it is noteworthy in one respect – it does not show Wren’s Tom Tower, for the simple reason that this was not built until 1681–2. Loggan’s engravings are enlivened by details of wonderful horse-drawn carriages, street pedlars, barking dogs, grave dons and early tourists.

Oxford in the seventeenth century was largely a city fashioned by Tudor rebuilding of medieval fabrics. This process resulted in what we may call the standard ‘Oxford Gothic’ style, modelled on the monastic community idea, seen in colleges such as Exeter, Balliol, University, All Souls and so on – although most of these were again restored in the nineteenth century.

The major single event in Oxford’s architectural history was the rage for rebuilding in the neo-classical style, which took place in the first half of the eighteenth century, epitomised by the Clarendon Building and the Radcliffe Library, now the iconic symbols of Oxford. Together with the Schools Quadrangle and Bodleian Library, these new structures created a distinct, fully-fledged University Quarter within the city. The neo-classical transformation of much of Oxford is best traced in the longest series of published images that we have, the Oxford Almanacks, which began in 1674 and have continued almost without interruption. In function a broadsheet calendar of the University year, the upper half of the page was adorned with a sizeable engraving, which after 1700 was used to show the striking and beautiful new buildings by Wren, Hawskmoor, Gibbs and others. This vogue reached its culmination in the total rebuilding of the medieval Queen’s College in the neo-classical style.

By the early years of the nineteenth century, a distinct change had come over the style of these Almanack pictures, which reflected the tastes of the time by becoming more and more romantic. The buildings were now shown among wind-blown trees, against backgrounds of sunset skies, or seen across the river; the natural, atmospheric setting became almost as important as the architecture. These romantic views were carried further in the innovative 1814 work by Rudolph Ackermann, The History of Oxford University, where the text was really a framework on which to hang the images – an impressive series of Oxford views, now published for the first time in colour. In place of the severe classical grey images of Oxford’s buildings, we now have an array of rich colours, in stones, in skies, in foliage and in costume. In Ackermann’s hands Oxford was brought to life, perhaps even sentimentalised, which made his book a perfect souvenir for the departing graduate or the visiting tourist. This frank appeal to sentiment was carried still further in 1843 in William Delamotte’s Original Views of Oxford, which, wherever possible, added to the colleges and the streets an array of elegant Victorian figures, local children, flowered borders and pastel skies.

Image and ideal: Oxford in printsDavid Loggan’s 1675 view of Christ Church for Oxonia Illustrata

In 1832–7 however, between Ackermann and Delamotte, there appeared a very different series of pictures in Memorials of Oxford by James Ingram, President of Trinity College – a book illustrated with scores of delicate uncoloured views, small enough to be called miniatures, showing the fine detail and the subtle shades which steel engraving made possible. These images, most of them engraved by James Le Keux, reaffirmed the original artistic ideals of Loggan’s collection, and they were almost the last of the classic series of Oxford views.

The nineteenth-century Almanacks show us individually the great new Victorian buildings, from the neo-classical new Ashmolean to the neo-Gothic University Museum and Keble College. When the first women’s colleges were founded in the 1870s, it is noticeable that they steered clear of Oxford’s traditional architectural norms, so that Lady Margaret Hall, for example, opted for the stately but domestic feel of the Queen Anne style, presumably thought suitable for a women’s institution. The Almanacks switched from copperplate engraving to the finer medium of steel in the 1830s. Later in the 19th century they employed various etched techniques, which gave a richer variety of tones, and it was not until well into the 1940s that they embraced colour lithography. They experimented with photography for a few years around 1900, but soon returned to the traditional medium of drawings, commissioned from leading artists.

Image and ideal: Oxford in printsThe Divinity School, with an oral exam in progress, from the 1814 History of Oxford

Original volumes of these views of Oxford are not as costly as we might expect. Loggan is the exception, and a complete copy in fine condition may sell for up to £20,000. Ackermann’s book may be £2,000 to £3,000, while the three volumes containing the Ingram miniatures look distinctly like a bargain, at under four figures.   

Taken together, these pictures now offer us a panorama of the historic heart of Oxford. Their appeal lies frankly in the way that they capture the aura, the mystique of Oxford, before the experimental, often ugly and soulless buildings of the twentieth century, which have so changed and perhaps destroyed the harmony of the city. Each of us can name our most-hated building, but on many lists will probably be the University’s own administrative block, towering brutally over Little Clarendon Street; the Florey Building beside the Cherwell, perpetrated unbelievably by Queen’s College; and the fan-shaped Nuclear Physics block on the Banbury Road.  In all these cases, the defects of form are made worse by the material – dull grey concrete.

Image and ideal: Oxford in printsOxford is an ancient university city, a place where the past is – or ought to be – within us and all around us. But in practice that past is often overshadowed,  diminished or tainted by the present. These pictures enable us to build up a comprehensive, albeit idealised, picture of Oxford’s past, to recall what it once looked and felt like.

It is true that this is a book concerned with externals, with buildings and images. But the outside appearance of a city cannot fail to reflect its inner character and its human story. In the case of Oxford’s history, the image and the reality are not two entities, but one. So this book becomes a visual index to the ideals of learning, tranquillity, order and beauty – ideals which made Oxford what it is, but which are now, sadly, seen more and more as ideals of the past.

  • Oxford in Prints 1675–1900 by Peter Whitfield is published by the Bodleian Library at £25.

All images © Bodleian Libraries