This carved group caught my eye when I was in the Bodleian Quad (or more properly the Schools’ Quad) yesterday. (Forgive the slight blurriness as I was trying out x4 digital zoom on the 70mm end of my lens …)
The Tower was erected just over 400 years ago and this group was an afterthought and indulgence to an unknown benefactor who wanted to butter up King James, who had recently given his book to the Bodleian Library.
There is a history of the building of the Tower published in Oxoniensa in 1968 (The Building of the Tower of Five Orders In the Schools’ Quadrangle at Oxford by CATHERINE COLE, available at oxoniensia.org/volumes/1968/cole.pdf.)
"Since the carvings for the two top storeys of the Tower were in all probability still unfinished at the time of the presentation, a rare opportunity was offered to any benefactor who sought to gain favour with the monarch, either for himself or for the University. It seems that this opportunity was eagerly seized, unhappily we do not know by whom, all existing plans were cancelled and the fourth storey of the Tower adroitly adapted to accommodate a sculptured group representing His Majesty in the act of bestowing his book upon the University; his likeness, appropriately, being taken from the portrait with which he had adorned the royal Works. It is perhaps significant that this group of statues was, on erection, painted double gilt, an extravagance so far beyond the usual careful parsimony of the University, that it may indicate a single wealthy donor, and indeed may well represent a third and last attempt to attract the royal favour on the part of that indomitable old lawyer, Otho Nicholson, who had on two previous occasions shown himself a bountiful patron to Oxford in the hope of pleasing the King. If so, success again eluded him, for Anthony Wood has given us, along with a detailed description of the carvings, the sad story of the shabby treatment which this magnificent spectacle received at the King’s hands.
‘The effigies of King James’ he writes ‘was cut very curiously in stone, sitting in a throne and giving with his right hand a book to the picture or emblem of Fame, with this prescription on the cover: ‘Haec habeo, quae scripsi’, with his left hand he reacheth out another book to our mother, the University of Oxford, represented in effigy kneeling to the King with this inscription’ Haec haebo quae dedi’, On the verge of the canopy over the throne and the King’s head, which is also most admirably cut in stone, is his motto ‘Beati pacifici’ over that [not visible in this photo] also are the emblems ofJustice, Peace and Plenty and underneath all this an inscription in golden letters: ‘Regnante D. Jacobo, regum doctissimo, munificentissimo, optimo hae musis extractae moles, congesta bibliotheca et quaecumque adhuc deerant ad splendorem Academicae felicita tentata, coepta, absoluta, soli deo gloria’, all which pictures and emblems were at first with great cost and splendour double gilt, but when King James came from Woodstock to see the quadrangular pile he commanded them (being so glorious and splendid that none, especially when the sun shined, could behold them) to be whitened over and adorned with ordinary colours, which hath since so continued’.
It was indeed unfortunate that His Majesty first saw the statues in the dazzling brightness of an August afternoon, but it is doubtful if such gaudy city taste would have proved acceptable to him, even in more favourable circumstances, for John de Critz, the King’s painter, had some years previously set on foot a fashion for the more sober hues which were then current in fashionable Court circles.
By a happy accident we know the sculptor who carved these much admired, if ill-fated, statues on the Schools Tower, for Sir John Bennet has most conveniently supplied us with his name, Last on the list of the miscellaneous and undated entries which he added to his accounts we read: ‘item paid by Sir John Bennet to John Clark when he began his work upon the King’s statue … £5 ‘. We might indeed haw guessed his identity ourselves, for the tower carvings bear a close resemblance to another famous Oxford monument, the Jacobean conduit case at Carfax, for which the same carver was responsible."
And what a comfortable home for pigeons it now makes!
Tagged: , Oxford , Oxfordshire , University of Oxford , Tower of the Five Orders , sculpture