Historic Brickwork in Oxfordshire: Keble College

Where better to look for beautiful examples of historic brickwork than Oxfordshire? Home to some of the country’s most iconic examples of architecture and craftsmanship, it’s no wonder Oxfordshire buildings have been the site for many films, including Harry Potter, The Golden Compass and Inspector Morse. Tourists and residents flock to see the historic brickwork, which dates from the Saxon period right through to the Gothic Revival. There are also later examples of this type of architecture, including postmodernist buildings. Just take a look at the Saïd Business School. This month, however, we will look at one stunning example of historic brickwork in Oxfordshire in particular – that of Keble College, which was founded in 1870. The college was to be built in memory of John Keble who sought to restore England’s faith in Catholicism; this religious background provides an important piece of context for the design of the college.

When searching for an architect to build Keble College, the University decided upon William Butterfield, an architect well-known for his use of Gothic Revival Architecture. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Gothic architecture, the style emerged to combat some of the key problems of medieval building work, where the use of stone made buildings very dark, cold and increased the likelihood of damp. Tall, airy buildings with pointed arches and vaulted ceilings characterise the Gothic period and introduced the notion of aesthetic architecture, rather than functional design.

One of Butterfield’s biggest decisions was his choice of brickwork. This type of historic brickwork is often called ‘polychromatic’, meaning that different colours of brick (usually brown, cream and red) are used to form a pattern within the exterior of the building. Over time, these brickwork patterns became more complicated, featuring diagonal and criss-cross designs.

During this period, bricks would have proved a slightly cheaper building material but they were also Butterfield’s preferred choice due to the increasing popularity of the polychromatic style during the 1860s. The alternation of coloured bricks allowed builders to highlight key architectural features of a building and easily build around complex window shapes and the iconic pointed arches. This type of  brickwork involved a great deal of complex design and intricate craftsmanship, and was consequently considered an assertion of power; in this case, a statement of religious significance. Keble College’s information page describes how the historic brickwork marked Keble’s ‘distinctively high church position’.

In recent years, the college has undergone some vital restoration works, notably to its windows and beautiful tiled floors. 4,500 replacement tiles were specially made (and carefully colour matched) in order to restore the Grade I listed dining hall to its former condition. Almost 15 years ago, a huge restoration project was started to clean all interior walls and ceilings of Keble’s Dining Hall, which had become blackened by more than a century of use, especially by the use of gas-lighting when the hall was first used. These restoration works are estimated to have cost three quarters of a million pounds and reveal the extent of restoration required by a Grade I listed building. Keble has also made use of the college’s historic brickwork in its fundraising efforts. The Talbot Fund has previously raised money through a creative fundraising campaign called Pick a Brick; alumni decide upon a type of brick and the corresponding support. You can see more on this here.

Although Keble College might be expensive to conserve and requires continual restoration work, its status as a Grade I listed building reveals the cultural and historical worth. After all, without buildings such as Keble College, we might not be able to see such fascinating examples of historic brickwork, and adopt the polychromatic style of buildings in more recent constructions.