Library Architecture

The Library at All Souls College, Oxford, is not only architecturally interesting in itself, but also has a distinctive place in the history of library design. The building of the Great Library started on June 21, 1716, to a plan by Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), but the fitting out was not completed until 1751, and certain aspects of Hawksmoor’s concept were not realised as he had intended. Further additions to the fabric were made in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but these are of far less merit than the Great Library.

Hawksmoor’s original idea had been to construct the library in a uniformly Gothic, or at least Gothic revival, style, to match the College chapel on the opposite side of the north quadrangle of All Souls. However, this was overridden by his patrons, on the advice of Dr George Clarke, the Fellow of the College who was responsible for Hawksmoor’s involvement in the first place. In consequence, the Library has a most unusual architectural form, a classical interior within a Gothic exterior. The transition between the two is skilfully disguised. The glazing of the main windows is inserted at the point where the round arches of the interior meet the pointed ones of the façade on to the quadrangle, and at either end of the Library a Serliana window is transmogrified into Perpendicular tracery. This latter feature was not erected exactly as Hawksmoor proposed. A drawing in his hand indicates a more elegant solution to the problem, and it has been suggested that the existing form may well have been designed by Clarke himself.

The library itself is a long, relatively narrow, and lofty room, running east-west, with a recess in the middle of the north side. It is 199 feet 8 inches long, 32 feet 5 inches wide, and 37 feet 3 inches high, the recess being 18 feet 1 inch deep and 34 feet 9 inches long. It is lined with bookcases throughout, reaching almost to the ceiling except on the south side. Here, the bookcases extend only to the bottom of a row of large windows, which light the whole of the interior, supplemented by the Serlianas. Additionally, artificial lighting was introduced in 1909, and is now concealed behind the cornice.

The bookcases are articulated by two superimposed fluted pilaster orders, Doric below and Ionic above, with a balustraded balcony running between them. Those on the ground floor take the form of cupboards, closed by grille doors. The area beneath the bookcases is treated as a plinth for the lower order, and also provides a continuous bench seat. The bookcases are painted a deep olive green, which appears to be close to the original colour scheme. The upper tier of bookcases is surmounted by a row of classical urns alternating with busts of Worthies of All Souls, painted in the same colour.

This arrangement is not the one Hawksmoor envisaged, for he intended there to be two galleries. But James Gibbs, the architect of the Radcliffe Camera, wrote in 1740 'Since you asked my opinion about the design of your presses for the books in your Library, I think them carried too high. And if the attic storey was taken away entirely, I think they would look lighter and better'. His advice was accepted.

The Library has a flat, coffered ceiling. The coffering is, for the most part, substantially later than the rest of the building, and in a different form from that originally proposed by Hawksmoor. His design envisaged very substantial beams, with guilloche decoration, in a simple pattern of rectangles and circles, the circles being in the centre of the two end bays of the ceiling. One of these beams survives between the recess itself and the main body of the Library. But the rest of the coffering is shallower, with smaller-scale decoration, and in a more complex pattern of geometrical forms, which are less clearly related to the structure of the building than Hawksmoor's would have been. It was executed by an Oxford plasterer, Thomas Roberts, in 1750-51, but his design, too, was altered in 1804, when most of the low reliefs he had placed on the wall above the bookshelves were removed, and the plasterwork of the ceiling itself simplified. As a result of these changes, the ceiling of the Library today does not lead the eye along the great length of the building effectively.

The stone floor of the Library is an exercise in geometrical polychromy. Square flags of dressed stone of two different colours are laid in a diagonal pattern with similar flags of polished black marble, which is also used for narrow surrounding bands. These form an edging between the stone floor and a wooden boarded surround immediately next to the bookcases.

The Library was originally furnished with individual sloping reading-desks on tripod and baluster stands, arranged around the sides of the main space. Some of these have survived, and have been supplemented with copies. A white marble statue of Christopher Codrington in antique Roman costume, by Sir Henry Cheere (1734), stands in the recess, and a representation of William Blackstone, seated, and wearing his robes as a judge of the High Court, by John Bacon (1784), at the east end of the main space.

A new reading room was added to the Library on its northern side in 1866-7. It is chiefly notable for the fact that it is top-lit by a glass ceiling. A gallery was constructed in it in 1906 (1885). So, although it is stylistically a world away from the Great Library, it does have structural similarities to it. Shortly afterwards, storerooms for books 'of secondary interest' were built. The internal arrangements of these have undergone alterations in the course of the last decade.

The architecture of the Great Library at All Souls diverged from the mainstream of library design in four respects.

Previously, purpose-built libraries had normally been placed on the first floor of a building, to protect the books from damp. This is the case with Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence, Sansovino’s Marcian Library in Venice, and Wren’s Trinity College Library, Cambridge. The Library at All Souls, however, is on the ground floor. Hawksmoor noted in his letter to George Clarke of 17 February 1714/15, in which he explained his plans for the rebuilding of the College, 'I must desire, cellars vaulted, under the whole Library, other wayes the books will suffer much'. These vaulted cellars were installed, in brick, and served the purpose of protecting the books admirably. They also provide valuable storage space, and are an extremely handsome architectural feature in their own right.

Libraries had also usually been lit by windows on both sides, as at the Laurentian and Trinity, and also, in Oxford, Duke Humfrey’s Library, and, in All Souls itself, the Old Library in the front quadrangle. Hawksmoor’s letter does not specifically deal with his decision to confine illumination to the south side of the Library, and the two end walls, but it does indicate that he was concerned to light the interior adequately. His description of his original, all-Gothic proposal, noted that there would be arches defining the centre part of the Library, and 'Over these arches rises a turret (as high as that on the Chapell side) with windows striking down into the room placed in form of a Gothick lantern'. George Clarke noted 'I hope the College will not build this turret', and it did not. Hawksmoor may well have been guided by his concern to increase the amount of bookshelf space. However, the windows as constructed are very large, and as they are placed high in the wall they do provide satisfactory reading light.

Earlier furniture arrangements had also differed from Hawksmoor’s. Most of the libraries already cited had bookshelves projecting at right angles from their long walls, with an aisle down the centre of the room. He left the central space free, and shelved the walls themselves. The reasons for this are probably to be found in aesthetic, rather than functional considerations.

What is, in some ways, the most unexpected departure from previous practice is described by Hawksmoor in his letter to Clarke: 'The Library has it’s [sic] entrance in the middle, which is distinguish’d within, by a large recess breaking towards Hart Hall…' (Hart Hall was the predecessor of Hertford College, which lies immediately to the north). Almost all earlier libraries had been entered from a door in the middle of an end wall. Hawksmoor did provide a similar entrance, via an ante-room at the west end of the Great Library, but this entrance is not on the main axis, and so does not offer an view of the full length of the building.

The significance of the central entrance is that it points to Hawksmoor’s aesthetic intentions for the Library. More than most of the earlier English classical architects, he was interested in the subtle handling of interior volumes. In particular, he aimed at ambiguity and surprise. The central entrance, opposite a recess, would have achieved this. A visitor entering the Library through the centre door would have had the impression of moving into a more or less square space, of fairly limited size. Only after taking a step or two further would he become aware of the immensity of the library to the right and left, and aware that the principal axis of it was at right angles to the apparent one.

Had Hawksmoor’s proposed turret been built, this effect would have been even more strongly marked. The central rectangle would have been defined still further by a flood of light, and the contrast with the rest of the building increased. The clerestory lighting from the turret was a device similar to that at Blenheim Palace, which had been built by Hawksmoor in collaboration with Sir John Vanbrugh (then the senior member of the partnership). Hawksmoor himself was to use it again in his independent designs for London churches, most notably at St Mary, Woolnoth, and Christ Church, Spitalfields. The openness of the library interior, uninterrupted by bookshelves, enhances the sense of space which he sought.

It is ironic that this carefully calculated architectural gesture can be appreciated today only when the library is not being used for its principal purpose. On occasions during the year it serves as a dining room, with entry being by the central door.

Hawksmoor’s approach to the exterior and the plan of the Library was also governed by aesthetic principle. Decorum required the adoption of Gothic for the exterior, once the decision had been taken to retain the fifteenth century chapel on the other side of the quadrangle, and to extend it with a hall faced in the same style. But the Gothic was disciplined by rigid classical symmetry, most evident in the plan, where Hawksmoor went so far as to duplicate the outline of the antechapel at the west end of the Library. Once again, this symmetry would have been even more complete had the original all-Gothic design been constructed, since the south windows would have been filled with tracery to match those of the chapel, instead of the existing continuous glazing. However, symmetry has subsequently been compromised still further by the insertion of a seventeenth century sundial, intended for the south front of the chapel and attributed to Sir Christopher Wren, between the two central pinnacles of the Library front.

It would be wrong to convey the impression that Hawksmoor’s subtle architectural concept for the Library has been lost through alteration of his proposals. It has undoubtedly been modified, but the central element of it is still perceptible. He wrote that architecture should be the product of '…Strong Reason and good fancy…', and the term fancy has a particular meaning, derived from the aesthetic theories of Thomas Hobbes. It is 'the virtue…of observing likenesses between things of different natures'. Hawksmoor’s classical building with a Gothic skin exemplifies that virtue.