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'As much artistic meaning as a picture run over by lorries...' - The restoration of Christ Church Library in the 1960s

Written by Judith Curthoys, posted on Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Document of the Month - October 2019

Christ Church Archives P.TOP.NL/9 & 10


Christ Church’s grand ‘New Library’ was built during the eighteenth century, taking about 60 years from start to finish. By the end of the nineteenth, though, it was showing its age.

The appalling state of the stonework was first noted in 1893; William Gates AMICE, described it as "very badly scaled and weathered". The Headington freestone was suffering from exfoliation, the hardstone from cavernous decay, and the Burford stone from blistering and warts. Immediate repairs were made to the cornice then, and again in 1908, but not the major work that was evidently needed.

Peckwater Quad had been refaced in the late 1920s, leaving the library looking particularly shabby, and by the 1950s, the crumbling stonework - described by Sir John Summerson as having “about as much artistic meaning as a painting might which had been run over by a fleet of lorries” - was being removed for the safety of those walking below.

The development of the Blue Boar site was put on hold for a decade partly because of the urgency for conservation work on the Library frontage, but it was still not until 1960 that the real work began when three sides of the building - north, east, and west - were refaced. In October of that year, the brand-new Corinthian capitals were being carefully craned into place. There had been some concern a few years before that the use of the by-now ubiquitous Clipsham would render the quadrangle dull but the worries were uncalled-for; the restoration was completed in a dramatic combination of Portland Shelly Whitbed and Clipsham stone, replacing the old Headington and Burford stones which allowed the recreation of the original contrasting colours. The effect was to draw the quadrangle together as an “historically and architecturally” cohesive whole.

Once the outside was made safe and beautiful again, attention was turned to the inside. In 1963, the pictures which remained in the library were moved into temporary storage allowing more space for books and, for the first time, the whole of the ground floor was given over for library use. Symm’s were commissioned to build bookcases in the west library to match those in the east, and the downstairs rooms were lined with a hessian, painted off-white.

It was then that the daunting task of redecorating the Upper Library was tackled. Once again, John Fowler was called in to advise and, after problems determining what the original scheme by Roberts might have been, it was decided to start from scratch. The basic plan was agreed, including the gilding of Thomas Robert’s ceiling plasterwork, but choosing the colour was to cause many hours of heartache, not least for the Librarian, Dr John Mason. Neapolitan pink or white were the favourite options, with pink being the Librarian’s choice. Fowler was less than amused at the proposal of a bolder pink, suggesting that “if Christ Church wants a scheme in knicker pink, it must find another consultant”. Part of the problem was the size of the committee, swelled by many advisors. The vote was taken in Michaelmas term 1964, influenced by the pre-arranged intervention of Lord Robert Blake, and pink won the day 21 votes to 9.