Keble College, Oxford: the Ugliest Building in the World?
Keble College is one of the historic colleges of Oxford University and is renowned for its visually striking Gothic Revival buildings designed by William Butterfield, a leading architect of the High Victorian period. However, the architectural historian Kenneth Clark described Keble as “the ugliest building in the world”.
Keble College was founded in 1870 as a memorial to the theologian John Keble. Keble was a prominent member of the Oxford Movement, which sought to reinvigorate the Anglican Church by introducing elements of the Catholic liturgy. As a result, Keble College placed considerable emphasis on theological teaching.
The principal founder of the college was Edward Pusey, one of Keble’s colleagues in the Oxford Movement. Immediately after Keble’s death in 1866 it was decided that his memorial would be a new Oxford college bearing his name. The foundation stone was laid in 1868 by the Archbishop of Canterbury on John Keble’s birthday, the 25th April. The college opened in 1870 and originally accomodated thirty students. The college chapel was opened on the 25th April 1876.
The architect William Butterfield was a High Churchman and produced a vigourous work of ‘Muscular Gothic’. Between 1850 and 1870 the Gothic Revival entered its High Victorian phase. The architecture of this period was very strong and muscular, and expressed Britain’s pride and confidence as the world's first industrial power. Indeed, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described the design as ‘manly’. Keble has a relentlessly patterned exterior, achieved with the use of structural polychromy, in which colour is embedded in the materials rather than applied to the surface. The College is executed in a visually stunning array of red, blue, and white bricks. Due to the relentless patterned banding, the aesthetic is often referred to as the ‘streaky bacon style’. The use of structural polychromy has its origins in the Venetian architecture championed by John Ruskin.
This was a completely new version of Gothic; we could not accuse it of copying mediaeval examples. This kind of architecture was despised in the early 20th century when Modernism was in vogue. In his pioneering book The Gothic Revival: An essay in the history of taste (1928) Kenneth Clarke described Keble as ‘the ugliest building in the world’. To our eyes, however, the style is quintessentially Victorian.
Keble was not universally admired within the University. In particular, it aroused the ire of students at neighbouring St John’s College, from which Keble had purchased the site. The students of St John’s founded a secret society, whose initiation ritual involved stealing brick from Keble College and presenting it to the society’s elders.
Keble College owns the original of William Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World (1853). This famous Pre-Raphaelite work is hung in the side chapel. The picture was originally hung in the Royal Academy, but was given to the college as a gift. Hunt intended the painting to be hung in the main chapel but Butterfield rejected this idea. In response, Hunt painted another version of the painting, which is now in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
There is a popular legend – probably apocryphal – which states that a French visitor, upon seeing the college exclaimed, C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la gare? (‘It is magnificent but is it not the railway station?’). This is a play on Field Marshal Pierre Bosquet’s memorable line, referring to the Charge of the Light Brigade, C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre (”It is magnificent, but it is not war”).
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