A tour of Oxford’s past through its people, places and things
On 25th March, it will be exactly two hundred years since Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet titled “The Necessity of Atheism” and then sending copies to colleges and bookshops around the city. He had lasted a single term.
Therefore, it is with some irony, that one of the biggest statues in Oxford celebrates one of its most infamous rebels. The Shelley Memorial at University College was described by its benefactor, Shelley’s daughter-in-law, as “a beautiful work in marble and bronze”. Today, untainted by familial obligation, the college’s history diplomatically describes it as a statue that “continues to fascinate and to disturb”.
Disturbing or not, the statue was never meant to end up at Univ. It was commissioned from the sculptor Edward Onslow Ford for Shelley’s grave in Rome, but was far too large. So, encumbered with an enormous naked statue of her father-in-law, Lady Shelley offered it to his former (albeit very temporary) college. The Fellows initially rejected it. However, the deal was sweetened when money was thrown in to build a dome above the unwanted marble. Thus University College ended up with a massive statue that they had never asked for of a student they had expelled for “mocking the very foundations on which Oxford then rested”.
Today the memorial serves many purposes. It has become the object of interest to art historians who question the effeminate pose and structure of Shelley’s body and have gone as far as to propose that the statue was modeled on a statue of St Cecelia in Rome. It is a highlight on Univ’s many access tours. But most importantly the statue has provided an ongoing challenge for Univ students to prank. Iron grills had to be placed around the statue in 1933 to stop student statue based fun.
This may have been a wise move, as it is believed that Shelley’s genitals are currently much smaller than original due to years of student decoration followed by college cleaning.
So in the next few weeks head over to Univ to pay tribute to Oxford’s largest, most expensive and elaborate memorial to a student who lasted a term. Because this Hilary we celebrate two hundred years of Shelley as an inspiration to rebellious students everywhere, and those who refused to flourish at Oxford and went on to achieve greatness.