31 August 2023

A pilgrim’s visit
to Keble College
and Butterfield’s
chapel in Oxford

Keble College, Oxford, was established in 1870 as a tribute to John Keble, a founding figure in the Oxford Movement (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I have often spoken and written in the past ‘The Light of the World’ by the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Holt (1827-1910) is the first image of Christ I remember seeing as a child. A print of it was first shown to me by my grandmother in her house in Cappoquin, Co Waterford, and it is an image that has remained with me ever since.

The original painting is in Keble College, Oxford. It became so popular that Hunt was asked to paint a larger copy. This second version was sold on condition that it toured the world to preach the Gospel and that the purchaser provided cheap colour reproductions. After travelling the world, the second version was presented to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, in 1904. It remains ‘a painted text, a sermon on canvas.’

‘The Light of the World’ has been reproduced in books, prints and stained-glass windows around the world, and I seem to see it in vestries, rectories and vicarages everywhere. I have seen the version in Saint Paul’s on many occasions, but I did not see the original until last week, when I visited Keble College, Oxford.

Keble College is distinctive for its neo-Gothic red-brick buildings designed by William Butterfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Keble College was established in 1870, and was built as a tribute to John Keble (1792-1866), a founding figure in the Oxford Movement. This is one of the largest colleges in the University of Oxford, and its main buildings are on Parks Road, opposite the University Museum and the University Parks.

Keble is distinctive for its once-controversial neo-Gothic red-brick buildings designed by the London architect William Butterfield (1814-1900), who is associated with the Oxford Movement and known for his use of polychromy.

Butterfield synthesised Pugin’s Gothic Revival with the insights of John Ruskin, author of The Stones of Venice, who had an enormous influence on Anglo-Catholic architecture. Butterfield took Ruskin’s ideals to heart in Keble College and All Saints’ Church, Margaret Street, London. His other works include Saint Andrew’s Church, Rugby; Saint Mark’s Church, Dundela, Belfast; and the chapel of Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Dublin.

The Chapel and Liddon Quadrangle in Keble College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John Keble died in 1866, four years before the college was founded in 1870. It was decided immediately after Keble’s funeral that his memorial would be a new Oxford college bearing his name. The best-known of Keble’s founders was the Revd Professor Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882), after whom the Pusey Quad and Pusey Room are named.

The foundation stone was laid by Archbishop John Bird Sumner of Canterbury on Saint Mark’s Day, 25 April 1868, John Keble’s birthday. The college opened in 1870, taking in 30 students. The chapel was opened on Saint Mark’s Day 1876, and the college continues to celebrate Saint Mark’s Day each year.

Keble is one of Butterfield’s few secular buildings, and a notable example of Victorian Gothic architecture. The architectural historian Sir Niklaus Pevsner says it is ‘actively ugly,’ Charles Eastlake says it defies criticism, the social historian GM Trevelyan said: ‘the monstrosities of architecture erected by order of the dons of Oxford and Cambridge colleges in the days of William Butterfield and Alfred Waterhouse give daily pain to posterity.’ Sir Kenneth Clark says that during his Oxford years it was generally believed that Keble College was ‘the ugliest building in the world.’

Butterfield’s buildings at Keble College broke from Oxbridge architectural traditions by using brick instead of stone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Butterfield’s buildings at Keble College broke from Oxbridge architectural traditions by using brick instead of stone and by arranging rooms along corridors rather than around staircases.

The college is built of red, blue, and white bricks; the main structure is of red brick, with white and blue patterned banding. The builders were Parnell & Son of Rugby.

The main site of Keble contains five quads: Liddon, the largest, named after the Revd Professor Henry Parry Liddon (1829-1890), another key figure in the Oxford Movement; Pusey, named after Edward Bouverie Pusey; Hayward, named after Charles Hayward; De Breyne, named after Andre de Breyne; and Newman, previously the Fellows’ Garden, named after John Henry Newman.

The first parts of the college to be built were the east and west sides of Liddon Quad to house undergraduate and tutors’ rooms. These residential ranges have a horizontal emphasis contrasted with tall chimneys and gables with a chequered decoration of brick and stone. Edward Bouverie Pusey paid for the entrance gateway and tower.

Edward Bouverie Pusey paid for the entrance gateway and tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The dominant building is the chapel with its bold buttresses and pinnacles. It soars above the sunken quadrangle with windows that start high up above the first storey. The south range facing the chapel contains the Hall and Library on the first floor. The grand oriel window in the middle of this range lights the internal staircase.

The best-known portion of Keble’s buildings is the distinctive main brick complex, designed by Butterfield. The design remained incomplete due to shortage of funds. The Chapel and Hall were built later than the accommodation blocks to the east and west of the two original quadrangles and the warden’s house at the south-east corner. The chapel and hall, also designed by Butterfield, were funded by William Gibbs.

The original college focus was on teaching theology, but it now offers subjects across the range of degrees that Oxford offers. In the years after World War II, the trend was towards science degrees, reflecting Keble’s proximity to the university science area east of the University Museum. Keble admitted its first female students in 1979.

The original focus at Keble College was on teaching theology, but it now offers subjects across the range of degrees that Oxford offers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A section west of the chapel was built in a different style in the 1950s with funding from Antonin Besse. Later significant additions include the modern, brick Hayward and de Breyne extensions by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek (ABK), made possible by a donations from the businessmen Charles Hayward and André de Breyne and other fundraising efforts. The ABK buildings included the college’s futuristic ‘goldfish bowl’ bar, opened in 1977.

The ARCO building was completed in 1995 by the US-born architect Rick Mather. This was followed in 2002 by the Sloane-Robinson Building, also designed by Mather, with additional student bedrooms, the O’Reilly Theatre, a dedicated room for musical practice, a number of seminar rooms and a café and social space. The original fellows’ garden was lost in the programme of extension, as well as a range of houses on Blackhall Road.

Keble bought the former Acland Hospital for £10.75 million in 2004 and the site was redeveloped to double the number of graduate rooms.

There is another Pre-Raphaelite link here, for the Acland Hospital was named after Henry Wentworth Acland, Regius Professor of Medicine in Oxford, and a friend of John Ruskin. In 1871, Ruskin gave Acland a gift of Ruskin’s portrait by John Everett Millais, which now hangs in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Keble College Boat Club competes annually in Torpids and Summer Eights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today, Keble is one of the larger colleges in Oxford, with 460 undergraduates and 525 graduate students. The name of the college magazine The Brick is a reminder of the brick given to each graduate along with their degree diploma.

Keble College Sports Ground is on Woodstock Road. Keble fields a number of sports teams, particularly in rugby, football and cricket.

Keble College Boat Club competes annually in Torpids and Summer Eights.

Inside Keble College Chapel, one of the major achievements of Victorian church architecture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Keble College Chapel is one of the major achievements of Victorian church architecture. Butterfield intended the chapel to speak in its order and decoration of the principles of the Oxford Movement, with its emphasis on the corporate life of the Church and sacramental worship. The stained glass and mosaics are by Alexander Gibbs.

In 1873, Butterfield wrote to HP Liddon: ‘I wish the Chapel to speak chiefly of public worship … to illustrate in its order the whole Christian Creed in type and anti-type as far as possible … The Christian Year [Keble’s book of poems on the Sundays and Holy Days of the Church's year] is in its way what I am asking this Chapel to be.’

In the mosaic decoration, he wished to represent the ‘successive dealings of God with His Church, Patriarchal, Jewish, and Christian,’ culminating in the vision of the Lord in glory according to the imagery of the Book of Revelation, which was placed above the altar at the east end.

The chapel was the gift of William Gibbs, but he did not live to see it completed (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The chapel was the gift of William Gibbs (1790-1875), reputedly ‘the richest non-noble man in England.’ But he did not live to see it completed. It was opened on Saint Mark’s Day 1876, but it was never consecrated as the College Council feared this might interfere with its authority over the chapel and its worship.

According to Paul Thomson in his thesis ‘William Butterfield, Victorian Architect’ (1971), Butterfield’s many hours studying Saint Marks’s Basilica, Venice, made him emphasise the mosaics that ‘dominate the interior of Keble College Chapel.’ The painted decoration of the chapel, and the emphatic horizontal thickening of the lower wall, make Butterfield’s debt to the upper church of Saint Francis in Assist much clearer than in All Saints’ Church, Margaret Street.

The stained glass and mosaics in Keble Chapel, including the East Window depicting the Ascension, are by Alexander Gibbs (1832-1886) of Bedford Square in Bloomsbury.

The side chapel was built as a memorial to HP Liddon and as a home for William Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The side chapel was built 20 years later partly as a memorial to HP Liddon, partly to provide a fitting home for William Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World,’ originally housed in the College Library. Butterfield disapproved of building the side chapel, which blocked the light from the transept window into the chapel.

Hunt originally wanted the painting to hang in the main chapel, and when Bloomfield rejected this Holman Hunt responded by painting the second version now in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London.

The side chapel was designed by JT Micklethwaithe. It was re-ordered and ‘The Light of the World’ was moved to its present position in 1976.

The East Window in Keble Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

There are services in Keble Chapel throughout the week in term time, and all are welcome regardless of background or belief. Keble Choir sings at the three main chapel services each week.

The Sung Eucharist (Sundays 5:30 pm) is the main service of the week, with hymns, choral music and a thought-provoking talk, followed by pre-dinner drinks. The two other main chapel services each week are Choral Evensong (Wednesdays 6 pm) and Candlelit Compline (Thursdays 9 pm), followed by port and hot chocolate.

Other chapel services include: Morning Prayer (8:15, Monday-Friday), Evening Prayer (6:30, Mondays), Said Eucharist (6:30, Tuesdays and Thursdays), and Evensong (6 pm, Wednesdays).

The West Window in Keble Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Chaplain is Father Max Kramer, who studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford, trained for the priesthood at Westcott House, Cambridge, and completed an MPhil in Old Testament studies at Saint John’s College, Cambridge.

He has taught Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Classical and Biblical Literature at the Universities of Cambridge and Kent. He is interested in the relationship between Christianity and Judaism and Classical literature. Before coming to Keble he was Precentor of Canterbury Cathedral.

The Assistant Chaplain since 2012 is Father Darren McFarland, Vicar of Saint Andrew’s, Old Headington. He trained for priesthood in the Church of Ireland and then served in parishes in Co Wicklow and Dublin.

Looking towards the west end of Keble Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Keble College is the patron of 69 parishes across England, including Saint Barnabas, Oxford, which I visited the same day as visiting Keble College.

Along with Saint Barnabas, Saint Paul’s, All Saints’ and Tom Quad in Christ Church, Keble is mentioned by John Betjeman in his poem ‘Myfanwy at Oxford’:

Her Myfanwy? My Myfanwy.
Bicycle bells in a Boar’s Hill Pine,
Stedman Triple from All Saints’ steeple,
Tom and his hundred and one at nine,
Bells of Butterfield, caught in Keble,
Sally and backstroke answer “Mine!”

Keble is also named in the writings of John Ruskin and in Monty Python’s ‘Travel Agent’ sketch. Horace Rumpole, the barrister in John Mortimer’s books, is a law graduate of Keble.

Looking out on Liddon Quad and Keble from Keble Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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