Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Custodian

The building that Gilbert Sheldon commissioned for “the enactment of university business” cost him £14,500 and was the first commission of Sir Chistopher Wren who was the then Savilian Professor of Astronomy at the University; though what the real estate that the Sheldonian Theatre occupies now is worth can only be guessed at, being as it is, part of the wider property portfolio of Oxford University. The original plan was that Sheldon would deposit some seed money - £1000 and then others would jump in, well no-one did and so he stood the cost himself; he did become Chancellor of the University soon after, he was already the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The design brief was to develop the ceremony of the university, to aggrandize the pomp and circumstance to celebrate it's position at the heart of learning for the establishment, the country, early Empire and the ruling class that comprised it's natural entrants. I have witnessed of how successful this is at first hand when, as do all Oxon students, my wife received her degree there (my wife is not a member of any of the aforementioned categories above!), as well as attending many music concerts.
Apart from highlighting the architectural features that were designed to meet the challenges set to reveal the above, there are other interesting aspects to the building that I shall try and capture, such as the roof support structure. Wren had originally designed a set of columns to support the roof which was vetoed by the University as dance - a principle design consideration then, but no longer a requirement now I think - would have been limited, this gave Wren an issue as the length of the required beams would have been longer than any trees in England at seventy feet or more. Wren turned to his fellow Savilian Professor of Geometry John Wallis, who devised what was then the largest unsupported roof structure in the world. The roof has been replaced, but the supporting structure is still extant. This roof offers a view of the “Dreaming Spires” which, depending on time and weather, might offer an interesting perspective. Additionally there is Roger Streater’s (Serjeant painter to Charles II) ceiling painting (32 panels) depicting the “Truth descending upon the Arts and Sciences to expel Ignorance from the University” painted in 1668/9.
Another potential point of interest is the organ. Wren did not envisage a permanent organ in the original design and one was added about twenty years later, the first of three naturally aspirated organs. When, in 1989, the latest of these, designed by “Father Willis” was deemed unfit for purpose Robert Venables QC donated a “digital” organ, which comprised some eighty speakers and the ability to mimic other famous organs such as Salisbury Cathedral, Pembroke College Cambridge and St-Clotilde in Paris and all with the press of a few push buttons. This gift, said by Venables to be “the most difficult donation of money” he ever made caused a considerable consternation and significant debate from music aficionados at the time.
To gain permission to photograph inside the the Sheldonian I made contact through the "contact" email address of the Sheldonian, the response came from custodian@sheldon... I thought that the address was interesting when I first saw it, I now feel it entirely apt that this Grade 1 listed building should have a custodian. I like that.
I have been granted two hours, so my list of shots need to be explained early and clearly to the custodian in order to make best use of the short time.

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