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Unbuilt Queen’s

What follows is an online version of an exhibition previously on display in the Upper Library. The exhibition was curated by Lynette Dobson.

All images are copyright The Queen’s College and may not be reproduced without permission.

Introduction to the exhibition

The title of this exhibition was inspired by Howard Colvins’s well-known architectural work, Unbuilt Oxford, which describes and depicts designs for various buildings across Oxford which never came to fruition, from the 14th to 20th centuries. The book includes a section on Nicholas Hawksmoor’s designs for Queen’s, one of which, Proposition A, is included in this exhibition.

While focusing on our own buildings and the library in particular, Unbuilt Queen’s expands Colvin’s theme to include not only designs which were drawn up but never came into existence, but also buildings which no longer exist, and buildings yet to be completed. The material featured all comes from the Library’s own collections and covers a broad range of concepts.

Loggan, David, 1635-1700?

Engraving of The Queen’s College from Oxonia illustrata
Queen’s Sel.b.221

This 17th century engraving by renowned artist Loggan is our main source of information for the layout of the medieval College, whose buildings were gradually replaced over the course of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The Library can be seen in the top left of the drawing, the newly built Williamson Building (1672) front right, and the medieval long walls in the distance, which still exist today.

Note the front entrance on Queen’s Lane, rather than the High Street.

Hawksmoor, Nicholas, 1661-1736

Proposition A
Queen’s 1, Queen’s 2

Proposition A is one of seven new layouts for the College designed by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early 18th century. The plan on display shows a prominent central chapel between the north and south quads, classically influenced with a frontage of steps and pillars. Hawksmoor’s designs were physically constrained by the Library and the Williamson Building which had already been constructed in the north quadrangle, thus his designs featured bold plans for the Hall and Chapel as the remaining centerpieces of the College.

Hawksmoor also made several designs for the High Street facade of the College, of which Proposition A was one of the most subdued. The drawing’s similarity with the frontage that exists today demonstrates that although Hawksmoor’s designs were not selected, many of his features provided inspiration for the final plans.

Tatham, Edward, 1749-1834

Oxonia explicata et ornata
New edition 1820
Queen’s 50.C.10

Originally published in 1773, Oxonia explicata et ornata was Tatham’s first publication, in which he details his opinions on possible improvements to Oxford architecture. Regarding Queen’s, he waxes lyrical: Queen’s was rebuilt “with purer elegance than any other college” and the buildings are “chaste and elegant”. There may have been certain bias to his views – Tatham was a Queensman who matriculated in 1769 before later going on to be Rector of Lincoln.

However, he also had some remarkable suggestions for changes to the buildings, most strikingly that the High Street arcade should be “entirely removed, and replaced by an iron gate and palisade; which would display the whole quadrangle to the High-Street in all its splendor.” Unfortunately he doesn’t provide illustration of his grand proposal, and it seems unlikely that he had any influence. Tatham appears to have had strong opinions on many subjects including university reform, politics, and economics. In The Oxford dictionary of national biography he is described as “a cantankerous man who enjoyed controversy.”

Seddon, John Pollard, 1827-1906

[Proposed decorative scheme for the College chapel]
Queen’s 28

The image on display shows one of two brightly coloured paintings of designs for the redecoration of the College Chapel by architect John Seddon. Stunning although undoubtedly controversial, neither of his bold plans were ever realised.

Burghers, Michael, 1647 or 1648-1727

The orthography and ichnography of Queen’s College Library in Oxford
Early 18th century
Queen’s II.e.601/6 [Burghers' engraving]

In Magrath’s history of the College, it is reported that a sum of £16 was paid by Provost Halton to Dutch illustrator Michael Burghers for two copper plates of the newly built Library. The orthography and ichnography … shows the Upper Library with an open cloister and garden rooms below, as it was before the lower level was enclosed to build the Lower Library after the Mason bequest of the 1840s. Access to the Upper Library was via stairs at the south end (left in the picture).

A close inspection reveals that there are two figures flanking the central eagle on the roof in Burgher’s illustration which do not exist. According to Magrath, these were most likely never in place and may have been a suggestion for improvement.

Constructors Limited, Birmingham

[Tender for installation of double-tiered shelving in the Lower Library]
Queen’s MS 730

In the 1930s several different proposals were made to provide more shelf space in the Library. One such plan was to fill the Lower Library with two tiers of metal shelves, with a raised floor between them. The forty foot long and fourteen foot high shelving units in “apple green” would have undoubtedly provided adequate shelving space, but the Cockerell interior, now protected, would have been lost and the Lower Library as we know it would be very different.

The future

It seems natural to end the exhibition with a note about our “unbuilt Library” – a building that does not yet exist but which is scheduled for completion in late 2016.

Plans for a new library extension under the Provost’s garden on the west side of the existing building were first conceived by Rick Mather Architects ten years ago, and construction began in June 2015.

The new space will provide, among other features, a reading room, environmentally controlled storage for our historical collections, new staff offices, and a multipurpose room. A model of the new building along with detailed information boards can be found in the middle of the Upper Library.

Exhibition bibliography / further reading

Magrath, John Richard, 1839-1930
The Queen’s College
Oxford : The Clarendon Press, 1921

Hodgkin, R. H. (Robert Howard), 1877-
Six centuries of an Oxford college : a history of the Queen’s College, 1340-1940
Oxford : Basil Blackwell, 1949.

Hole, Robert
“Tatham, Edward (bap. 1749, d. 1834), college head.” Oxford dictionary of national biography [online ed.]. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004-. September 9, 2015. <>

And finally… Unbuilt Oxford

The starting point for this exhibition was Howard Colvin’s well-known architectural work, Unbuilt Oxford, which describes and depicts designs for various buildings across Oxford which never came to fruition, from the 14th to 20th centuries.

While the theme of unbuilt Oxford turned out to be too large in scope for this exhibition, we also identified two other modern works on the topic in our collection which may be of interest to those who wish to learn more about the history of the modern city: Oxford replanned by Thomas Sharp (1948) and The king is in his counting house: a prospect for Oxford by Thomas Rayson (1946).

Perhaps the most surprising feature of the schemes outlined in these books is a prominent plan, appearing in several guises, for an inner ring road which would have cut straight through Christ Church Meadow.