The Archives Blog

Search all blog posts

Just old lawyers and bishops...

Written by Judith Curthoys, posted on Friday, February 1, 2019

Document of the Month - February 2019

Christ Church Archives, DP x.c.1, f.11

Letter to Dean Samuel Smith from W.H. ColeridgeIn early February 1829, William Hart Coleridge wrote to Dean Samuel Smith to inform him that his portrait – painted by the celebrated artist, Thomas Phillips, then professor of painting at the Royal Academy - was making its way to Christ Church on Russell’s waggon to be hung in Hall.  Russell’s Flying Waggons were the largest of the west country’s carrier services at the time running between London and Falmouth three times a week. It was a big and profitable business; at the end of the eighteenth century, Russell was carrying bullion and cloth and, in his lighter, faster vehicles, even butter.

But why was Coleridge sending his portrait to Christ Church?  William – nephew of Samuel Taylor Coleridge - was educated by another uncle, George, after the death of his father, at Ottery St Mary’s grammar school. He entered Christ Church in 1807, taking all his examinations including his doctorate in divinity and then, like so many young men of the period, became a curate. Cyril Jackson, who was dean in the early part of Coleridge’s time in Oxford, was diligent and always kept an eye on the careers of his students, and it was not long before Coleridge was made secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, and then, in 1824, he was consecrated as bishop of Barbados, the first Anglican bishop on the island.  The painting must have been commissioned to celebrate his new appointment.

It was quite usual, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the Dean and Canons to write to Christ Church men who had become successful in their chosen field and ask them to send portraits to line the walls of the Hall. Between 1808 and 1818, no fewer than eight men (including the Marquis of Wellesley – brother of the Duke of Wellington, and Charles Abbott, the Speaker of the Commons) were thanked for providing pictures of themselves, and many more followed over the next few decades.

Various portraits in the HallAnd so the Hall was lined from end to end with pictures of men in wigs. Or was it? Look carefully and you will find that among these traditional old men are new images and portraits of men and a few women whose roles in life were very different from those eighteenth- and nineteenth-century lawyers and clergyman: teachers and tutors, politicians and statesmen, writers, and military men. Some are even relatively modern: above and surrounding high table are twentieth-century Deans – Eric Heaton, Henry Chadwick, John Drury, Christopher Lewis, Cuthbert Simpson, and Alwyn Williams. Close by are Christ Church’s two most recent prime ministers, Alec Douglas-Home and Anthony Eden. On the east wall are W.H. Auden and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, two of Britain’s best-loved writers.

And three women are represented – both Queens Elizabeth, and Professor Judith Pallot, the first woman tutor and Student at Christ Church. Actually, no, there is one more – not in a painting, but represented in the portraits in the glass of the windows, is Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, just one of a different range of diverse members of the House – scientists, philosophers, artists…