Theatre of dreams — The Sheldonian

Priscilla Waugh reflects on Sir Christopher Wren’s most elegant creation — The Sheldonian


Watercolour by David Langford

Let the Bright Seraphim in burning row Their loud uplighted angel trumpets blow.

Let the Cherubic host, in tuneful choirs, Touch their immortal harps with golden wires Samson

Think of an English architect and the chances are you will think of Sir Christopher Wren, mastermind of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. St Paul’s was built between 1675 and 1710, but there is an earlier Wren building, from 1669, of supreme elegance: Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre.

In passing, most assume it to be a totally round building, but the front is a flat Palladian façade, crammed rather uncomfortably across a courtyard from the Divinity School. This strange orientation was not Wren’s idea. It came about as a matter of expediency, allowing the Divinity School to be used as a robing room for ceremonial occasions.

Gilbert Sheldon was the man who put up the first £1,000 and is thus remembered in the name. He was variously Warden of All Souls, Bishop of London, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of the University of Oxford and was, quite marvellously for posterity, persuaded that the university needed a secular building in which to hold its frequently raucous public ceremonies, until now held in St Mary’s.

There is a fine portrait of him by the sculptor and mason Edward Pierce in the Ashmolean. It depicts a man “in so great a perfection, such a mechanical Head and so Philosophical a Mind” as Thomas Hooke had ever known. And Hooke, perhaps the foremost experimental scientist of the century, was a man not easily impressed.

At the time of his appointment as architect, Wren was just an amateur, albeit a brilliant scientist and Oxford’s Savilian Professor of Astronomy. His current work included investigation of the rings around Saturn and of the satellites of Jupiter.

The Sheldonian also functions as a concert hall, in which guise it leaves much to be desired. Comfortable seats, for one thing. And there are those of us who, embarrassed at the fact that the world’s finest performers are invited (and are pleased to accept invitations) here, have been vociferous in demanding a proper concert hall for Oxford.

Then we attend a great performance of a great work and, somehow, we just don’t care so much any more.

Gazing aloft at cherubim and seraphim tumbling across Robert Streater’s ceiling in celebration of the apparent ‘Triumph of Religion and Learning’ (that’s Oxford) over ‘brutish, scoffing ignorance’ (that’s the Commonwealth), forget the quibbles about poor seating and lack of facilities.

Just let there be trumpets. Let there be drums. Let there be always a Handel oratorio and let there always, always, be the Sheldonian Theatre in which it may be heard.

Oxfordshire Limited Edition