Meadow Quad

Meadow BuildingMeadow Building Detail

Although Christ Church attracts many thousands of visitors each year, its purpose remains twofold: the pursuit of learning and the worship of God.  In this sense, Christ Church preserves the ethos of Thomas Wolsey’s original Cardinal College, founded here in 1524, which sought to renew both education and spirituality.

The Meadow Building, through which visitors enter, and exit, was built expressly for undergraduates in the nineteenth century – a time when Christ Church, like the rest of the University, was undergoing a series of important reforms to strengthen the emphasis on undergraduate education.   The famous tutorial system was developed, in which one or two students discuss their work with a tutor each week, a practice which continues to this day.  Meanwhile, the curriculum was expanded to encompass a greater variety of subjects, including such disciplines as natural science, law, and modern history. It was agreed that the undergraduates needed more and better housing, and from 1862-5 the college built a new a suite of rooms overlooking the meadows.

Today Christ Church is home to around 420 undergraduates, taught by over 100 academic staff. The rooms throughout the college are still used by students and staff and we ask all visitors to respect the working environment around the college. Like many colleges, rooms are grouped by a staircase, each of which is numbered – look out for the numbers on the Meadow building when you have entered.  Each staircase has a housekeeper (known as a scout) who looks after the rooms, and once looked after their inhabitants too.

Meadow Building's Staircase

Meadow Building Detail

The Meadow Building is in the Venetian Gothic style, popularised in the Victorian period through the writings of one Christ Church alumni, John Ruskin. Ruskin loved the buildings of Venice and sought to encourage a number of their elements within contemporary architecture. Venetian influences can be seen in the pointed shape of the windows and arches (called a lancet arch) and the inclusion of Eastern Mediterranean motifs on the surface of the building (known as a polychrome ornament).  But the building was designed by an Irish architect, T. N. Deane, well known in Dublin for his work on the National Museum and Library.

If you look up to the wall between the Meadow Building and the Hall, you can see one of the more recent additions to the college: a series of modern grotesques. Whilst work was ongoing elsewhere, it was decided to use some of the spare stone to decorate the wall and a number of long-serving Christ Church staff were used as ‘models’.  Two former Clerks of Works (Robert Branch and Bill Major) can be seen, next to Alec and Tony Clarke who served as a scout and SCR butler respectively. The latter two both held their positions for over fifty years, a not unusual feat for staff at the college.

On the right as you enter Meadow Quad is the Old Library. This modest name gives little indication of the great treasury of knowledge that once lay behind this door. Today, only the shell of what was the Old library now remains, but at its opening in 1562, it was one of the largest and grandest libraries in Oxford and the intellectual hub of the college in its earliest days. By the turn of the seventeenth century, however, Christ Church had stiff competition from other colleges with their own ambitions to be Oxford’s best: libraries were the currency for this contest and Christ Church needed to keep up. Between 1610-11, therefore, Christ Church library was refitted to rival contemporary examples such as the Duke Humfrey’s library (part of the Bodleian). This process was crowned by the installation of a stunning painted ceiling, adorned with an extensive series of royal arms, crests and badges. Parts of this ceiling are still visible today, although only by those lucky enough to stay in one of the rooms in which the ceiling is still intact.

This renovation, though magnificent, was not enough and more space was soon needed. Christ Church was growing, and bequests from men like Robert Burton, the great writer on melancholy and librarian of Christ Church, needed to be housed.  Repeated alterations began to take their toll on this medieval frame and the building of a new library became urgent. Begun in 1717, the New Library was finally completed in 1772 - we shall encounter it later in the tour. The Old Library was converted into much-needed accommodation in 1775, and members of the college continue to live there to this day.

Next - Hall Staircase