Oxford is peppered with curious carvings, intricate inscriptions, and grimacing gargoyles. Felicity Tholstrup of Hidden Oxford reveals their significance.

Sheldonian Theatre

Above: One of the thirteen carved heads around the Sheldonian Theatre

By Felicity Tholstrup

Few visitors to Oxford fully discover the wealth of carvings peering down from towers, college cloisters or chapel misericords.  Many carvings or ‘grotesques’ are purely decorative, mysteriously allegorical, or just comical. Some are weatherbeaten beyond recognition, while others are surprisingly recent. 

A few gargoyles (from the old French word for throat, ‘gargouille’) still wrap their stone jaws around rooftop water spouts, elevating these precursors of the drainpipe to a small work of art. If you stand at the north end of St Mary’s Passage you can see my favourite example, staring out across Radcliffe Square from the University Church rooftop, an astonished face which is half man, half lion. 

St Mary the Virgin

Above: The steeple of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin

The prolific Oxford architect, Sir Thomas Jackson, designed the High addition to Brasenose College in the 1890s. A founding member of the Arts and Crafts movement, he was also a skilled artist and stonemason. He decorated its street frontage with figures depicting the dignity of labour (the masons, plumbers, carpenters and bricklayers who worked on these buildings) alongside comical heads of early monks and scholars in mortar boards and wimples, scratching and picking away at their faces! 


Above: Brasenose College gargoyle

More recently, when Magdalen College tower was restored in the 1970s faces depicting college fellows and staff encircled its parapet, and above them a row of faces from Symm, the company who worked on the building. To appreciate their exaggerated features you may need binoculars, but on the lower buildings you can easily find the carved fifteenth century founder of the college, William of Wayneflete, blessing those entering the city as they cross the bridge. Inside the college 22 allegorical figures line three sides of the cloisters. These strange creatures, some with faces leering from their bellies, were originally carved and painted in about 1508.


Above: Magdalen College tower and its cloisters are peppered with discreet carved faces

The original record of their meaning having been lost, the college President requested some research from his college Fellows in the 1670s. The resulting 60-page Latin treatise was not very helpful but surmises that they probably represent the seven vices and virtues connected with academic life. When this popular college theme was used to decorate the seventeenth century library quad of St John’s College, an additional vice and virtue was conjured up to fill the requisite eight spandrels designed between the pillars!

A different form of carving can be seen above the entrance to nearby St Edmund Hall. This is a chronogram – a carved device containing a date within the text. The enlarged letters double as numerals, so that this inscription, which reads ‘Saint Edmund, Light of this Hall’ also marks the date on which Edmund of Abingdon was canonised in 1246. A similar chronogram can be found near the entrance to the Botanic Garden. This Hebrew inscription marks the site of the former Jewish cemetery. 

Botanic Garden

Above: The University of Oxford's Botanic Garden is the oldest in Britain, with attractive seventeenth century stonework

When the church of St Peter in the East was converted to the St Edmund Hall library  in the 1960s the stonemasons again decorated it with the faces of college staff. The Principal holds his squash racquet, the Dean is guarded by one of his beloved Labradors, the Librarian wears his legal wig, and the Bursar holds two money bags. The face of Michael Groser, the stonemason who carved these, looks out towards a row of wonderfully depicted animals and geometric shapes that he also carved along New College Lane.

St Edmund Hall

Above: St Peter in the East, the library of St Edmund Hall

These carvings are not entirely, but almost all dominated by male figures. However, when Marilyn Butler retired as the first elected female head of Exeter (1993- 2004), this once all-male college created a tribute to her along its Turl Street walls. A series of lively carvings depict items, the first letter of each combining to spell out her name.

Wren’s iconic heads guarding the Sheldonian Theatre have been given many names, including the ‘faceless Caesars’ and the ‘History of Beards’. The latter was coined by Michael Black, the stonemason who carved the current heads in 1970, an exact copy of those in Wren’s original design. He then left a small tribute to Wren - a small wren nesting in the hair of one of his stone sentinels.

sheldonian Theatre

Above: These busts were erected when the Sheldonian was built in 1662-68

New carvings continue to replace the old and as an Oxfordshire Millennium Project schoolchildren drew pictures they felt represented Oxford through its literature and characters. The winning designs were translated into stone and became the first twenty first century grotesques in Oxford, carrying on a great tradition in the city.

Felicity Tholstrup is the founder of Hidden Oxford. She will be taking walks on Oxford Carvings and College Silver during the Alumni Weekend.    

Images courtesy of Oxford University Images


By Jenny Morton

This is a most interesting article. However I would have liked to see photos of the specific carvings that are mentoned

By Jenny Morton

This is a most interesting article. However I would have liked to see photos of the specific carvings that are mentoned

By Stella Atkinson...

Thank you for the gargoyles ! The French word gargouille is still very much in use and not just for gargoyles. If your stomach rumbles this is the verb. Gargouillement and gargouillis are for indigestion of the noisy liquid kind.
Gargouillade contrasts as a choreography term denoting "saut de chat précédé et suivi d'un petit rond de jambe". Larousse's definition.
Gargouilles are always connected with water,
with the drain pipes serving the roof. I was roundly corrected by a local resident talking of the 14th century village church : the comical, sometimes erotic carvings, are modillons since they have nothing to do with the rain.

By William Neville

This is an interesting introduction to Oxford's gargoyles but far more pictures would have made it even more interesting. One of my favourites is that of Sir Kenneth Wheare, an Australian Rhodes Scholar and Rector of Exeter College,.who is remembered in a gargoyle overlooking (if I remember correctly) the College garden.

By Fred Manget

I had heard that "gargoyle" and its antecedents in French were the basis of "gargle" and "gurgle" in English, and was derived from the sound of water gurgling through the downspouts and gutters. But you never know if what you hear in Oxford is fanciful...