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Recording the Danby Gate (1632-33)

A measured drawing of the north elevation of the Danby Gate, Oxford Botanic Garden.
A measured drawing of the north elevation of the Danby Gate, Oxford Botanic Garden (1632-33). Image: Struan Bates.

On a recent trip to Oxford I passed the Danby Gate (1632-33), the historic entrance to Oxford Botanic Garden. The weather was considerably sunnier than the last time I visited, when I was measuring, sketching and photographing the gate for a survey.

A couple of memories stood out: firstly, in hindsight how probably mad I was to choose a building that required the drawing of such heavily rusticated and ornamented features. Secondly, and rather obviously, perhaps, but of considerable consequence when producing a printed record, was how much difference the availability of light makes when taking high-resolution photos.

Photos, heavily manipulated, of the norther elevation of the Danby Gate. Images: Struan Bates.

My final measured drawing of the north elevation of the gate is at the top of this article (this is the entrance side set back off the High Street opposite Magdalen College, though the actual visitor entrance is now through the wall to the left of the arch). After much rubbing out, I decided to take a less-is-more approach, lightly hatching the rustication on the pilasters and only tracing the outline of the statues of Charles I and Charles II in the left and right niches, and the bust of Henry Danvers, 1st Earl of Danby, who paid for the gate, in the pediment above.

The Danby Gate, south elevation. Image: Struan Bates.

The inscriptions on the pediment on both the north and south sides were similarly tricky to get right, particularly the serifs on the letters at such a reduced scale.

Survey equipment. The DISTO was variably accurate under fluctuating levels, with averages of multiple readings needing to be taken. Image: Struan Bates.

While not particularly complex in plan, the gate is not symmetrical or equally proportioned north and south of the wall. Neither are the internal and external fluted niches of equal size, requiring some nimble compass work.

Initial measured sketch of the Danby Gate plan. Image: Struan Bates.

This survey was the first time I had used a DISTO laser measure to record ceiling and roof heights. The accuracy of the tool appeared variable as the light fluctuated, though when the clouds came over this at least meant the laser point could be seen at the top of the pediment.

The eastern elevation of the gate bisected by the Botanic Garden wall, the side of the arch most difficult to record due to restricted space and light. A stone marking the place of the medieval Jewish Cemetery is to the right. Image: Struan Bates.

While not a novice in enhancing images, applying techniques to high-resolution photos taken on a very gloomy day was extremely time-consuming, with varying results. Particularly tricky was achieving consistency when increasing light levels and adding clarity to images showing both the whole of the gate and close-up details.

Holes for wooden posts, presumably created when adjacent structures were built. Image: Struan Bates.

The statues of the Stuart kings in Roman dress had recently underdone repair, but their elevated positions also made it hard to photographing smaller details. Even standing on a stool only resulted in grainy images when enhanced.

Statue of Charles I in the left niche, north elevation. This grainy, heavily magnified, image illustrates the difficulty of being unable to photograph features at eye level. Image: Struan Bates.

My survey also included research on the gate’s history. I had previously done some work on Nicholas Stone, who built the gate in 1632-33, together with the garden wall and a couple of smaller arches to the east and west, though only a potted history of Stone’s work was required for this project. Stone was also working on a house at Cornbury during the same period, using Headington stone provided by the Strong family of masons. To what extent work was simultaneously being co-ordinated between both sites is, for me, one of the most interesting outstanding questions.

History of the gate taken from the final report. Image: Struan Bates.

To some degree the Danby Gate suffers as a small historic building in a city with lots more larger and more visible ones. Its proximity to larger buildings and rather hidden location at the end of Oxford High Street both contribute to its diminished visibility.

The Danby Gate is however important as a complete surviving work by a leading figure in the development of classical architecture in the seventeenth century. For this reason, perhaps, its architectural significance deserves greater appreciation.

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