Friday, 18 May 2012

Bits and Pieces

As I start to become mobile again after nearly three weeks suffering from a sprained ankle and some strained eyes as I've done a lot of reading, I'm looking forward to getting out and taking some photographs again. I am hoping to get to the Holywell Rooms and the Ashmolian again next week. I'm also hoping to get a firm interview date with both Chris Friel and Tom Hunter, both of whom have agreed to meet and chat.

Oxford Artweeks was interesting; I sold a few prints and will deliver four large (for me anyway) A2 framed prints mounted to A1 size for a lounge in the next village. I'm hoping they look ok together - the room is large enough to cope with these monochrome prints, slightly warm-toned to compliment the tones in the room. One of the prints that I'll deliver - here left - was also used as an inspiration by a painter friend which he subsequently sold at his Artweeks exhibition. The price he set for it was considerably more than my price! He didn't offer any commission on the sale.....

The sponsors of the Cape Town Opera and Lord's Taverners have provided the first draft of their souvenir programme and have used a few of my images. I think they have a way to go before the text is finalised, but it's good to see my images in place. The piece needs some more work but I thought the sublimation of Wren was.....interesting (not my words). I hope to include the final artwork in the learning log.


Words by Kerry Underwood, photography by John Umney, building by Christopher Wren

The Sheldonian Theatre was built between 1664-1669 and was the first major design of Sir Christopher Wren, later responsible for St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and for the first use of the phrase “Here’s one I made earlier”.

It is based on Serlio’s illustration of the Theatre of Marcellus but the fragmentary aisle pediments described by Pevsner as “strikingly impure”, against the nave pediment are a Palladio motif, and the interior with its gilded wooden ropes along the painted ceiling is a memory of the velarium of Roman Circuses.

Sheldonian Theatre exterior. John Umney

It is named after Gilbert Sheldon, Warden of All Souls College and later Archbishop of Canterbury and is the ceremonial hall of the University of Oxford.

Christopher Wren

Christopher Wren was Professor of Astronomy at the University of Oxford and designed the Sheldonian Theatre in 1663. He was 31 at the time. Subsequently he became Surveyor to the King and dominated English architecture in the final third of the Seventeenth Century with St Paul’s Cathedral being his most famous building.

Gilbert Sheldon

Gilbert Sheldon was a Derbyshire man whose father was the servant of an Earl.  He entered the Church and attended Charles at Oxford when the King vowed to restore all of his seizures from the Church and the laity if he recovered his crown.

Sheldon hid this written vow for 13 years.  He was arrested by Parliament but freed on condition that he kept five miles away from the King and from Oxford.  He spent much of his time collecting for poor clergy and then for the exiled Charles the Second, although at the Restoration he refused to administer Holy Communion to the dissolute monarch.

He was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1663-1677 and thus gave the lie to the old rhyme

“Derbyshire born, Derbyshire bred;
Thick in arm and Thick in head”

(Regionalism is not yet one of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010).

Detail. Interior Sheldonian Theatre
 John Umney

The Architecture

This section relies heavily on the Buildings of England by Nikolaus Pevsner always the last word on any of this country’s architectural gems (and otherwise!)

The façade is classical, the first such building in Oxford and revolutionary for that city “but nationally speaking this façade has nothing of the purity of Inigo Jones’s masterpieces. In fact it is, as a young amateur’s job, just a little confused.” (Pevsner’s words, not mine!) The great Pevsner continues:

Seven bays, the middle three emphasized by giant columns, as against the giant pilasters of the sides. Pediment over the centre with garlands in the frieze below and the never wholly satisfactory half-pediments (which had the sanction of Palladio’s church façades) over the sides. Arched main widows, and in the outer bays shell-niches. The upper windows are still of two lights, mullioned, and the pilasters between them are short and broad. This and the odd fish-scale-like decoration mark the façade as immature. The sides and back have even less claim to classicity. High ground floor with broad rusticated pilasters and arches. Small windows only. The same short upper pilasters as on the façade and the same two-light windows. The roof originally had oval dormers. The lantern is of 1838, by Blore, well detailed but larger than the original one. Splendid, excellently carved N doorway and surround. The doorway has a straight cornice on corbels and a horizontal laurel garland in the frieze. Above, a slightly concave recess with broad trophies,  left and right. Big garlands at the top. Even the string course between ground floor and upper floor is carved along here.

The interior is one large hall with seating below and on a gallery. This has wooden columns, painted to look like marble.

Interior, Sheldonian Theatre
John Umney

The Painted Ceiling

The flat ceiling was painted by Robert Streater also known as Streeter, the Serjeant Painter to the King, in his Whitehall studio in 1668-9. James II regretted that Verrio had not done it, and even Verrio was not a master.

It is supposed to imitate a Roman theatre open to the sky, which theatres were protected from the weather by a large awning supported by a network of cords, and the ceiling is painted to represent such an awning, with the cords gilded and in high relief, but what Wren was proudest of was destroyed in the C18. It was the original roof construction, based on an idea and calculations of Wren’s friend Wallis, Savilian Professor of Geometry, published in 1649. The ceiling spans 70 by 80 ft without any cross-beams.

The subject is “Truth descending upon the Arts and Sciences” and shows the triumph of Virtues, Arts and Science (including Architecture) over Envy, Hatred, Malice and Tuition Fees.

Detail Sheldonian Theatre ceiling
John Umney

The following description is from The Natural History of Oxfordshire by Robert Plot, Professor of Chemistry and First Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in the University of Oxford.

This was published in 1705, which is handy as it means that it is 257 years out of copyright which has saved us a few quid.

The Circle of Figures consists first of Theology [23], with her Book with Seven Seals, imploring the assistance of Truth [18], for the unfolding of it.  On her left hand is the Mosaical Law [23] vailed, with the Tables of Stone, to which she points with her Iron Rod. On her right-hand is the gospel [23], with the Cross in one hand, and a Chalice in the other.  In the same division over the Mosaical Law  is History [23], holding up her Pen as dedicating it to Truth, and an attending  Genius with several Fragments of old Writing, from which she collects her History into her Book: On the other side, near the Gospel, is Divine Poesy [23], with her Harp of David’s fashion.

In the Triangle on the right hand of the Gospel, is also Logick [22] in a posture of Arguing; and in another on the left-hand of the Mosaical Law, is Musick [24] with her Antick Lyre, having a Pen in her hand, and Paper of Musick Notes on her knee, with a Genius on her right-hand (a little within the partition of Theology) playing on a Flute, being the Emblem  of the most ancient Musick; and on the left (but within the partition for Physick) Dramatick Poesy [19], with a Vizor representing Comedy, a Bloody Dagger for Tragedy, and the Reed Pipe for Pastoral.

In the Square on the right side of the Circle, is Law [19], with her ruling Scepter, accompanies with Records, Pattents, and Evidences on the one side; and on the other with Rhetorick: by these is an attending Genius with the Scales of Justice; and a Figure with a Palm-branch, the Emblem of Reward for Virtuous Actions; and the Roman Fasces, the marks of Power and Punishment. Printing [19], with a Case of Letters in one hand, and a Form ready set in the other, and by her several Sheets hanging as a drying.

(Could not have put it better myself - Ed)

Key to painted ceiling.
The numbers in the text refer to
the numbers on the ceiling

On the left side of the Circle opposite to Law, is Physick, holding the Knotty Staff of Esculapius, with a Serpent winding about it: The Botanist [19] imploring the assistance of Truth, in the right understanding of the nature of her Plants: Chymistry [19], with a Retort in her hands: and Chyrurgery [19] preparing her self to finish the Dissecting of a Head, which hath the Brain already opened, and held before he by one of the Genii.

On the other side of the Circle opposite to Theology, in three Squares are the Mathematical Sciences (depending on Demonstration, as the other on Faith) in the first of which is Astronomy [13] with the Celestial Globe, Geography [13] with the Terrestrial, together with three attending Genii; having Arithmetick [14] in the Square on one Hand, with a Paper of Figures; Optick [14] with the Perspective-Glass; Geometry [14] with a pair of Compasses  in her left, and a Table with Geometrical Figures in it, in her right Hand: And in the Square on the other Hand, Architecture [12] embracing the Capitel of a Column, with Compasses,  and the Norma or Square lying by Her: and a Workman holding another Square in one Hand, and a Plumb-line in the other.

In the midst of these Squares and Triangles (as descending from above) is the Figure of Truth [18] sitting on a Cloud, in one Hand holding a Palm-branch (the Emblem of Victory) in the other the Sun, whose brightness enlightens the whole Circle of Figures, and is so bright, that it seems to hide the Face of Her self  to the Spectators below.

Over the entrance of the Front of the Theatre are three Figures tumbling down; first Envy [8] with Her Snaky Hairs, Squint Eyes, Hags Breasts, pale and venomous Complection, strong but ugly Limbs, and rivel’d Skin, frighted from above by the sight of the shield of Pallas, with the Gorgon’s Head in it, against which she opposes Her Snaky Tresses, but Her fall is so precipitous, that she has no command of Her Arms.

Then Rapine [30] with her fiery Eyes, grinning Teeth, sharp Twangs, her Hands imbrewed in Blood, holding a Bloody Dagger in one hand, in the other a Burning Flambeau, with these Instruments threatening the destruction of Learning, and all its Habitations, but is overcome, and so prevented by an Herculean Genius, or Power.  Next that is represented brutish scoffing Ignorance [3], endeavouring to vilify and contemn what she understands not, which is charmed by a Mercurial Genius with his Caduceus’.

Well it was free because it is out of copyright and this is a charity concert.

Ceiling Sheldonian Theatre
John Umney

Fittings and sculpture

The organ case was designed by Sir Thomas Jackson in 1876.

The exterior is adorned with sculptures, including statues of Archbishop Sheldon, the first Duke of Ormonde and the second King Charles in Roman dress.

On the rounded north side is a palisade with carved heads of philosophers on the stone pillars.

The stone carving was by William Byrd, an Oxford sculptor, and Thomas Robinson was the  master-mason.

Richard Cleer, a London master wood-carver, was responsible for the two rostra which face each other across the interior of the theatre. 

These were designed for use by the two Proctors of the University on ceremonial occasions and the fasces projecting from their fronts symbolize the Proctors’ authority.

Sir Thomas Jackson’s organ case
John Umney


The theatre contains four large paintings.  One is a portrait of Sir Christopher Wren begun by Antonio Verrio (died 1707) and completed after his death by Sir James Thornhill and Sir Godfrey Kneller.

One of the other portraits is of Gilbert Sheldon and another is of the Duke of Ormonde and is a copy by Edmund Ashfield of an original by Sir Peter Lely at Chatsworth House.  The Duke of Ormonde is also represented by one of the statues outside. He was Commander of the Cavalier forces in Ireland and from 1649-50 led the Royalist forces against Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland and then lived in exile in Europe with Charles II.  Upon the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 the Duke of Ormonde became a major figure in England and Irish politics.  He became Chancellor the University of Oxford on 4 August 1669, hence the painting and statue.

The fourth portrait by Sir Peter Lely and is of the Bishop of Durham, Nathaniel Crewe, the founder of the Creweian Oration, though by some to be an annual speech commemorating the University’s benefactors and by others to be the response of the Gresty Road faithful when Crewe Alexandra score a goal.


  1. Sorry to hear you've been unwell John - I hope this turns into a productive and active week. I can see why someone would wish to live with that print - well done again on your sales.

  2. Thanks Eileen, I delivered the prints today and they will look ok I think. I'm hoping to return to take a picture of them when they are up.

  3. Hope you're soon fully mobile John. Congratulations on the sale of the prints - the trees on the one you feature look almost alive.

  4. The ankle improves at the rate ankles improve at, i.e. SLOWLY! I am at least reasonably mobile again and looking forward to get behind the lens again, thanks for your wishes Catherine. It was pleasing to deliver the commission.