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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

A statue in the wrong place

Photo credit: William Whyte

This statue of John Henry Newman (1801–1890) by Léon-Joseph Chavalliaud stands outside the Brompton Oratory, the London home of the Oratorians, the religious order founded in sixteenth-century Rome that Newman had joined after leaving the Church of England. Yet the statue was originally intended for Oxford because of the widespread respect for Newman’s literary as well as ecclesiastical status. The outrage this proposal provoked from those who saw it as an insidious attack on Protestant Oxford and a defiant response to the Martyrs’ Memorial forced a change of heart. The statue was installed in London instead. This late Victorian storm demonstrates the ongoing tensions the Reformation provoked. It also, however, draws attention to the many places and people who are not commemorated and who still find no place in Oxford.

Newman is an especially telling absence. A devoted evangelical member of the Church of England in his youth, he had implacably opposed equal rights for Catholics and sought to defend the University as a stronghold of the Protestant Church. He was a leading figure in the Oxford Movement and, as vicar of the University Church, he was known as the most able preacher in the City. Yet doubts came to assail his confidence in the Church of England. In 1845, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, becoming a Cardinal in 1879.  In 2019 he was formally canonized and made a saint. For many Victorian Protestants, he was proof of all that could go wrong at Oxford. Little wonder so many at the time opposed his memorialization.

A statue in the wrong place