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Great Oxford Grotesques

Home > Oxford > Architecture | Art | Day Trips | Quirky | Walks
by Cressida Ryan (subscribe)
Classicist and traveller
Published March 16th 2014
What's the difference between a gargoyle and a grotesque? A gargoyle has water running through its mouth (named after the French gargouille, throat), whereas a grotesque is more purely an architectural embellishment.

When you're wandering around England's historic towns, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the buildings, which all blur into one. One way to break it down is to look above your head and tune in to the extra bits and pieces which adorn the buildings. Grotesques and Gargolyes.

Outside Magdalen there are a whole line of carvings, with people, animals and groups.

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Magdalen College grotesques

Merton College has a great clutch of them. Some huge ones jut menacingly out of the chapel walls.

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Large figure jutting out from the chapel

Around the rest of college there are plenty of cute and scary ones.

merton, college, oxford, grotesque
Merton College, Fitzjames arch


merton, college, oxford, grotesque
An old man outside Merton

One or two now do function as more true gargoyles, with drain pipes coming out of the mouth.

merton, college, oxford, grotesque
Grotesque with a drainpipe = gargoyle?

As you walk along the High Street, All Souls College also sports a great range. My favourite is the owl just en route to Radcliffe Square. All Souls has no students, but is a college only for research fellows. The owl, as the symbol of wisdom, seems perfect for this intellectual powerhouse.

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A wise owl at All Souls

Over at the Bodleian there are loads to hunt out. At the front entrance are angels clutching scrolls, the precursors to books.

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Bodleian guardian angel

Some had become so worn that there was a competition for schoolchildren to design nine new ones in 2009. These are an important part of the Oxford landscape, after all. They include Sir Thomas Bodley himself.

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Bodleian Library grotesques

Around the rest of Oxford you'll find many more examples. There is even a book to guide you through them. From the seven deadly sins, to whole menageries of animals, grotesques have been a great place for imaginative craftsmen to indulge in their art.

So, next time you're wandering around, look above your head and tune in closely. You never know what you might find.
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Why? A new way to look around the city
When: All day, except Merton has visiting hours (2-5pm weekdays, 10am-5pm weekends)
Where: Oxford
Cost: 3 to enter Merton College
Your Comment
Cool bit of information there; an interesting read.
by Bryony Harrison (score: 4|11765) 1496 days ago
Always admire these when I'm in Oxford. And I agree, the owl is definitely a favourite ;) Enjoyable article to read!
by Erin Connelly (score: 2|522) 1496 days ago
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