A Jovial Time at the Oxford Union

Fiona Rose

In 1857 the Oxford Union Society had just built a gothic style debating chamber, designed by the young Irish architect Benjamin Woodward, whose bare walls were hungry for decoration. It was also that summer that 23 year old William Morris first met Dante Gabriel Rossetti who encouraged William in his desire to become a painter. On a trip to Oxford and a tour of the new building, William introduced Rossetti to Woodward and a plan was hatched to decorate the chamber with murals relating to the Arthurian legend.

The roof beams of the debating chamber divided the walls into 10 bays, each with 2 windows, so it was decided to paint 10 large scale scenes in distemper. Many well known Pre-Raphaelite artists, such as Ford Madox Brown and possibly Millais, were invited to join the group but, perhaps, because the artists were not to be paid (except for lodgings, travel and materials) the established names declined. Those who accepted, amongst them Arthur Hughes, Edward Burne Jones, William and Briton Riviere, along with William and Rossetti, had a jovial time with scholars working in the library next door disturbed by "their laughter and songs and jokes and the volleys of their soda water corks".

For his mural, William chose 'How Sir Palomydes loved La Belle Iseult with exceeding great love out of measure, and how she loved not him again but rather Sir Tristram'. As biographer Fiona MacCarthy notes, it was William's familiar theme of the rejected lover, the tragic triangle. It was whilst at Oxford that William met his Belle Iseult, writing to a friend that he "had met a stunner". This stunner was 18 year old Jane Burden whom he was to marry two years earlier. Janey was brought into his orbit by Rossetti who put in a lot of time and effort securing "stunners" to model for him.

William worked fast on his mural and then began painting the ceiling of the chamber with "quaint beast and birds". Morris & Co. repainted the ceiling in 1875 with an interlocking floral pattern. The work of the young artists was generally dismissed in Oxford but was admired by the art critic John Ruskin. However, the bright glory of the newly painted murals was not to last as Rossetti knew little about preparing the surfaces of the new walls correctly and soon the colours began to fade away. The murals were restored, at some expense, in 1986 and today can be seen, if a little dimly, by those visiting what has now become the Old Library at the Oxford Union.



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