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Her Rightful Place?

5th November 2023 saw the removal of some of the most iconic figures of Oxford’s architecture. Most of the Muses who stand aloft the Clarendon Building in Broad Street were removed by crane for restoration.

Originally “The Printing House”, as it was known, the Clarendon Building was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and completed in 1715. Since 1832, just after the Printer – The Oxford University Press - moved to Walton Street, this spectacular “gateway” to the heart of the University has been named after the man who funded it; the first Earl of Clarendon, Edward Hyde. He was able to do this largely due to the proceeds of his popular book “History of the Great Rebellion”.

The Earl of Clarendon was an important figure in his time; initially serving as chief advisor to King Charles I during the First English Civil War, and later, Lord Chancellor to Charles II. He held the position of Chancellor of Oxford University from 1660 – 1667.

The Clarendon Building has also been home to the Oxford University Police, popularly known as Bulldogs, who patrolled the city centre between 1829 and 2003, keeping a close eye on the students. There were even cells for those who stepped out of line in the basement. The building has now been incorporated into the ever-expanding Bodleian Library and while it isn’t open to the public to visit inside, the outside of the building has its own story.

A photo of the Clarendon Building in the 1880s.

The nine Muses have graced the roof of the Clarendon Building since 1717, and these mythical daughters of Zeus each represent a goddess of literature, science or the arts. They are the muses of love and poetry, dance, music, astronomy, comedy, tragedy, rhetoric, epic poetry and history.

The statues were originally by James Thornhill and made of lead. They were commissioned to continue the neo-classical Doric design of the building used by Hawksmoor. Reportedly, the University initially balked at their installation, leaving the muses languishing in storage for two years.

The identification and positioning of the Muses is not without debate. There is no accepted hierarchy other than the general acceptance that Calliope, the eldest of the sisters and connected to the art of epic poetry and eloquence, should head the group. Originally, she was atop the Portico in a central position looking down on Broad Street. Sadly, we know that by 1780 she had fallen and was damaged beyond repair

Sword-wielding Melepomene from the south-west corner met a similar fate around 1800 and no attempt was made to replace either of the statues until the 1970s.

In 1974 two fibreglass ‘replacements’ were made by Richard Kindersley, thanks to donations from Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxfords iconic bookseller. But in an untypical Oxford mix-up, the replacement Melepomene was installed in pole position above the Central portico and the replacement figure on the south-west corner appears to be a duplicate of Euterpe, the muse of music and lyric poetry.

A recent photo of the Clarendon Building.

The big question now of course, is when the restorations are complete and the Muses are returned in 2024, will Calliope be restored to her rightful position above the portico?

The usurper, Melepomene, is pictured here being ignominiously removed by crane and loaded into the back of a van.

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