Oxford fumes at siting of statue

November 2, 2007

A bitter row has broken out at Oxford University over a decision to site a 10ft high 18th-century statue in a much loved medieval room, writes Melanie Newman. A member of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's Heritage Protection Review Steering Committee, and a senior Oxford academic, this week described the move as "a monumental error of taste".

The university has already lifted up flagstones and sunk a hole in the floor of the Divinity School, a Grade I-listed building attached to the Bodleian Library. Dons and non-academic staff have united to protest at the arrival of the marble statue of Sir George Cooke, a Tory MP and barrister.

In a letter to the Oxford Magazine , John Blair, a professor of medieval history at the university, wrote: "Architecturally and historically it would be wholly out of place ... a grotesque intrusion into a serenely balanced space." The school was the single most remarkable room in Oxford, he added. Academics have also attacked the decision to dig the 5ft-long hole as "archaeologically destructive".

Oxford University Library Services, which is behind the move, originally said Listed Building Consent would not be needed but it has now confirmed it is seeking permission.

The statue, by Sir Henry Cheere, was saved from export in 2003 because of its significance to British art history. It represents Sir George reading a book while dressed in a toga and leaning against an antique Roman grave stele adorned with rams' skulls.

In his letter, Professor Blair wrote that when asked why the school had been chosen to house the statue, the university said it had been unable to find another temporary space to display it. "This is not a compelling argument," he said. "The Divinity School is not a basement in which to store things ... neither should it be used as a temporary art gallery."

Tom Hassall, emeritus fellow of St Cross College, Oxford, and a member of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's Heritage Protection Review Steering Committee, said: "This proposal by the university is a monumental error of taste: the serene interior of the Divinity School must not be used as a temporary storage basement.

"The original failure to follow the consent procedure for an alteration to the structure and setting of this Grade I-listed building seems inexplicable."

A university spokesman said: "The curators of the university libraries have approved the temporary installation of the statue and the next step is for the Buildings and Estates Subcommittee of the University Planning and Resources Allocation Committee to consider the request of the library to seek Listed Building Consent for a reversible reinforcement of the floor on which the statue would rest."

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