The architect as artist
The historic University of Oxford Examination Schools was designed and built by Sir Thomas Jackson as the University’s examination centre between 1876 and 1881. The building stands on part of the site of the Angel Inn, which is reputed to have been the first inn in England. Each year thousands of undergraduates sit their exams in this historic Grade II listed building, which is commonly known as the Schools, in traditional sub-fusc (black and white attire which is an Oxford tradition that is still rigidly enforced).
The Examination Schools – where art and architecture combine
The Examination Schools was considered by many to be Jackson’s masterpiece, bringing him from obscurity to prominence in architecture. Jackson put into this building the things he deeply believed about architecture: that the architect was essentially an artist; that he should be the creator and designer of everything in his building; that the decorative arts were an essential part of an architectural design. His respect for, and love of, the past is illustrated by his use of materials from old buildings: the marble inlay on the West staircase, bought in Rome on his honeymoon, the doorcase and overmantle plaques of the Luncheon Room; Wren’s pulpit from the Divinity School which he made into the Examiner’s throne in the South School; the throne in the North School made from the Vice Chancellor’s seat from the Old School with the sounding board from Wren’s pulpit over it. His sense of humour is most obviously seen in the creatures from Aesop’s fables depicted in the marble floor in the Great Hall.
Jackson had in mind that the Writing Schools would be used for the University’s ceremonial occasions. The first such occasion was on 1 May 1883 when the Examination Schools were inaugurated by a grand concert in the South School in the presence of the Prince of Wales. He was visiting Oxford to lay the foundation stone of the Indian Institute and wished a concert to be held in the Examination Schools for the benefit of the Royal College of Music.
A similar concert was held in the South School in 1983 to celebrate the centenary of the building. On that occasion HRH Prince Charles attended, immediately prior to his receiving the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Civil Law.
A number of portraits, which form a part of the University’s collection, are housed in the Schools. These include a portrait of Emperor Wilhelm II (Kaiser Bill) in the South School; the first Duke of Wellington in the North School; Chichester Fortescue, first Lord Carlingford by Tissot in the East School; and the Herkomer Collection (in Room 9), which includes a portrait of the Very Revd Henry George Liddell – Dean of Christ Church and father of ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
A more modern history of the Examination Schools
During the two World Wars the Examination Schools was used as a military hospital and in the basement of the building signs to the “resuscitation room” can still be seen today.
The Schools still are an invaluable building to the University. During term the University’s lectures are held here with over a thousand students coming and going every hour. Examinations are held at various times throughout the year. These are mainly for the degree of B.A., but also include degrees of Master of Philosophy; Master of Science; Master of Studies; Bachelor of Civil Law and a number of other Diplomas and Certificates and also oral examinations for Doctorates. During the peak period in June almost 1200 students are seated every day for written examinations.