Peck Quad and the New Library - closed to visitors in April, May and June

The New Library, the building immediately on your right as you enter Peckwater Quadrangle, provides a striking contrast with the rest of the Peckwater area. The Library’s vast Corinthian columns offset the elegance of the Peckwater buildings. Indeed, Peckwater’s architectural eclecticism resonates with Christ Church as a whole: a fusion of styles and ages. The contents of the library too reflect something of Christ Church’s history and development. The lower floor acts as the base for undergraduate study, housing a large collection of modern books, while the upper library contains one of the most substantial collections of early printed books and manuscripts in Oxford.

By the turn of the eighteenth century, the Old Library at Christ Church was no longer fit for purpose. Several major bequests, including a donation of 3,000 books by Henry Aldrich , Dean of Christ Church between 1689-1711, meant that the Old Library was nearly full and a new library was required. Probably designed by Dr George Clarke, Tory politician and architect, building started in 1717.  It proceeded in stages, on only in 1772 was the library finally completed.

The building-process was not straightforward: Clarke had intended the ground floor of the library to be an open piazza, but another great benefaction forced a change in the design. In 1760-3 Christ Church received a bequest of pictures and drawings, mostly Italian old masters from General John Guise, a prominent army officer and art collector. To accommodate this, the plans for an open loggia had to be revised, and what had been designed as a piazza became a picture gallery.  

Nowadays, the ground floor houses the working collections, while the Upper Library contains the bulk of the special collections and objects. Objects on display include the celestial and terrestrial globes made in London in about 1760 and the head of Mercury from the original statue of 1695.  The Guise collection is now on display to the public in the purpose-built Picture Gallery, in Canterbury Quad.

Moving from the Gothic splendour of Tom Quad to the classical sophistication of Peckwater, you witness a new phase in Christ Church’s history. Whereas Tom Quad manifests the sixteenth-century ambition of Wolsey, Peckwater embodies the flowering of aristocracy at Christ Church in the eighteenth century. The buildings in Peckwater Quad maintain their function as accommodation for undergraduates. However, they are no longer the preserve of a privileged few: today s room allocation is determined by a ballot system and Christ Church’s students come from a wide range of backgrounds.

Peckwater is one of the earliest pure Palladian buildings in England, a style derived and inspired by the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio and strongly based on the symmetry, perspective and values of the formal temple architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  It was built at the start of the eighteenth century to accommodate undergraduates known as ‘Gentlemen Commoners’, wealthy students who, unlike scholars, paid their own way through university. These students brought with them the promise of a considerable boost to the College’s finances, but also redefined the tenor of undergraduate life at Oxford: young, wealthy and with considerable leisure time, the Gentlemen Commoners are the source of many a myth of undergraduate mischief, including many of those myths associated with the statue of Mercury. 

The quad itself stands on the site of a medieval inn, which was run by the Peckwater family and given to St. Frideswide’s priory  by Robert Peckwater.  After the lands of St. Frideswide’s were appropriated by Cardinal Wolsey for the building of Cardinal’s College, the Inn was used as accommodation for undergraduates. However, with the number and status of undergraduates steadily increasing at the turn of the eighteenth century, it became necessary to renovate the Peckwater buildings into something more fitting.

The design of the building is by Henry Aldrich, Christ Church’s most ‘Renaissance’ dean.   Aldrich was a clergyman, architect, composer and classical scholar - a man of many talents indeed.  A bequest of £2,000 allowed work on the Quad to begin; it came from Anthony Radcliffe, one of the Canons, and the donor of the first statue of Mercury in Tom Quad. By 1713 three sides of the quadrangle were complete and the library provides the fourth.   

Please note that Peck Quad is often closed to visitors in April, May and June as our students are studing for their exams.