Sheldonian Theatre

Sheldonian Theatre

The above view of the Sheldonian Theatre actually only shows its rear, and it has been described as sticking out into Broad Street like the stern of a ship. Its main entrance faces the other way towards important university buildings (primarily Convocation House) to the south. The picture below published in the Illustrated London News in 1845 shows its front.

Sheldonian in 1845

The Theatre, built in 1664–9, was the very first work of Sir Christopher Wren (then Savilian Professor of Astronomy at the University). It is a Grade I listed building (List Entry No. 1047350 and for walling, railings and piers 1369353). Much of it was built in the crumbling Headington stone, and it was extensively restored in 1959–60, when it was resurfaced in Clipsham stone. It is seventy feet wide, and the roof has no supporting columns inside.

The building was commissioned by Gilbert Sheldon, who provided £14,500 towards it and subsequently became Chancellor of the University in 1667. It was designed as a place for “the enactment of university business”, as well as ceremonies which had previously taken place in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. In addition, the Oxford University Press operated from a large room over the ceiling until it moved into the purpose-built Clarendon Building next door in 1713.

It is described thus in The Lord Mayor’s Visit to Oxford (1826):

The whole party … proceeded to the Theatre – certainly one of the principal ornaments in Oxford; for which it is indebted to that unequalled architect, Sir Christopher Wren. Being under repairs, it was seen to some disadvantage. Enough, however, was yet visible of this elegant edifice to raise admiration. The party were astonished to hear, that although its interior is only eighty feet by seventy, it is yet made, by consummate contrivance and geometrical arrangement, to receive, with convenience, upwards of three thousand persons. In imitation of the ancient theatres, the walls of which were too widely expanded to admit of a roof, the ceiling has the appearance of canvass, painted allegorically, and strained over gilt cordage.

The inscription across the Broad Street front reads:

(Charles II, by the grace of God King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith).

Today, degree ceremonies and Encaenia are held at the Sheldonian. It is also used for concerts, a precedent set on 1 December 1849 when Jenny Lind, the Swedish nightingale, sang in freezing conditions to a black-gowned audience each paying half a guinea. She said, “It was like entering a sacred building”.

The Sheldonian is called the “theatre” because its design resembles that of a Roman theatre, but no plays are performed here. None the less, the city council has put up two road signs depicting the masks of tragedy and comedy that point the way to the Sheldonian….

Inside the Sheldonian

The above postcard shows the interior of the Sheldonian Theatre in about 1905, and the print below is probably a hundred years before that.

Interior of Sheldonian in c.1800

Sheldonian Theatre website

The Emperors’ heads

Oxford History Home

Stephanie Jenkins

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