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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

A 'holy zebra'

© Keble College, Oxford, UK / By Kind Permission of the Warden, Fellows, and Scholars of Keble College, Oxford / Bridgeman Images

Keble College on Parks Road looks different from much of the rest of Oxford. It was meant to. Striped brick instead of stone symbolizes a new sort of institution: one that tried to reform Oxford by returning to older ideas about faith and education. The College was founded in 1870 as a memorial to John Keble (1792–1866), a poet, priest, and leading figure in what was known as the Oxford Movement. The members – called ‘Tractarians’ because of the voluminous tracts they wrote – believed that the Church of England had been undermined by aspects of the Reformation. They were also passionate critics of what they saw as the lacklustre religion and loose morals of modern Oxford.

Like everything the Oxford Movement did, the foundation of Keble was an attempt to recapture something that they believed had been lost. Even its architecture looks far back into the past for inspiration, combining influences from the Middle Ages and Byzantium. But for many of their critics, this attempt to recover aspects of the pre-Reformation Church looked dangerously like the return of Roman Catholicism. The decision of a small number of Tractarians to leave the Church of England for Roman Catholicism served to fan these suspicions and fears. The College had become the focus for huge ambitions but also deep dislike. One architectural critic dismissed it as nothing more than a 'holy zebra'.