Keble gets quite a bad rep in literary circles – for Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte it is a point of some indignation that he should become a good boy for the sake of his mother, and attend lectures at Keble, of all places. A French tourist supposedly quipped “C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la gare?” upon first seeing the red brick of its decidedly neo-gothic walls. Keble is mentioned in the works of many authors, from John Betjeman to a brief mention as ‘Keble Bollege Oxford’ in Monty Python’s travel agent sketch.
However, by far the most damning literary allusion to Keble College comes from that paragon of easily quotable quips, Oscar Wilde, who described Oxford as the most beautiful place in the world, “in spite of Keble college.” The hatred for Keble’s architecture is very deep rooted even within the university itself – St John’s once had a secret ‘Destroy Keble’ society which sought to undermine the great edifice one brick at a time, for building such a train station-esque monstrosity on their land.
Well I would like to cast my two cents against this overwhelming current of historical negativity against what is, in my opinion, one of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful colleges in all of Oxford. The majority of the aesthetic disgust which surrounds Keble stems from the enormously controversial facts of its inception and design. This was a Tractarian college – founded in memory of that leading light of the ‘Oxford Movement’, John Keble. Keble and his contemporaries sought to fight against an increasingly ‘low’ 19th Century Anglican church, and return to those rigid strictures, and Latin, of ‘high’ Protestantism, and even (God forbid) some of the doctrinal traditions of Catholicism.
Fittingly, for a college whose religion leanings looked back fondly on an age of monks and cardinals, Keble’s architecture is one of the finest examples of the Gothic Revival – which sought to recreate the lancets, high ceilings and ornamentation of Gothic architecture, in a Victorian era tired of symmetrical and repetitive Neo-Classicism.
The great innovation of Keble’s architect, William Butterfield, was not in following the increasingly popular Neo-Gothic, or ‘pointed’, style, but rather in rejecting the traditional honey limestone which so characterises Oxford, and opting instead for cheap brick. However, in order to capture some of the intricacies of design, which characterise the ornamentally carved stone of the Gothic, Butterfield used a combination of red, white and black bricks in a ‘polychromatic’ style, which has often been derided as looking a lot like lasagne.
However, in my humble opinion, a lot of this derision and negativity is derived from a Victorian sense of snobbery. Keble was built out of brick because it was built on a budget – a financially haphazard plan to train huge numbers of priests who came from relatively poor backgrounds – the college sought to teach 250 undergraduates, in a time when the university as a whole only had 500 students. Thus we have an architecture that is in contradiction with itself, the red brick of industrial Britain reshaped and reformed to reflect the romanticism of the past – fog cloaked monasteries and belfries at midnight.
I think the heart of Keble’s beauty comes from the very earnest feelings of awe which it evokes – awe in that sense that predates the modern meanings of ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’ – something genuinely primal, the feeling in your gut in reaction to something that vaults skyward, towards the heavens and towards something of a totally different scale and texture to ordinary life. There are few better ways to procrastinate a late night essay crisis than to sit on the steps of Liddon quad, stare up at the chapel poised weightlessly above you, and think about how insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things.