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Visiting Downing College, Cambridge: grace and spaciousness at the neo-Classical creation of William Wilkins

Updated on July 6, 2013
Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
Downing College, Cambridge
Downing College, Cambridge | Source
Sir George Downing, 3rd Baronet
Sir George Downing, 3rd Baronet | Source
Map location of Cambridgeshire districts
Map location of Cambridgeshire districts | Source

Lawsuits notwithstanding

Downing College, Downing Street, Cambridge and the College's founder Sir George Downing, 3rd Baronet (1685-1749): don't they sound rather familiar?

Historical background

Yes, indeed: The Downing Street in London is made famous by house number 10: the residence of the British Prime Minister. This street was built by the grandfather of the founder of Downing College, also called Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet (1623-1684). When Sir George Downing, 3rd Baronet, died in 1749, he had left provision in his will, drawn up in 1717, for the founding of a Cambridge College.The circumstances of Sir George's inclusion of plans for a new Cambridge College were, however, somewhat unusual. Unfortunately, Sir George had not proved himself to be amenable enough to his wife to avoid Lady Downing leaving him on the day of their wedding. While her ladyship did serve Queen Anne for many years as a lady-in-waiting, Sir George was resigned to being unable to pass on his wealth to any direct descendents. When he died, therefore, the path to the College's foundation was in theory opened. (So far, so good.)

But then family members and the University of Cambridge started the law suits. These actions went on for decades until the authorities finally gave the go ahead for the College to be built: this is why, although the founder's death occurred in 1749, the College itself was not commenced in 1800. However, even then, building did not begin until several years later and the College was not properly functioning until the 1820s, when the first Master of the College had already died. The redoutable C. R. Benstead had this to say: 'The Downings were an odd family to whom odd things undoubtedly happened' (1).

Some features

The architect chosen to design the College's buildings was William Wilkins (1778-1839), who was strongly identified with associated with neo-Classicism as evidenced by his Greek Revival work at Downing College, Cambridge and University College London.

Interestingly, the centrally placed chapel by A. T. Scott, the design of which is completely in keeping with Wilkins's 19th century, neo-Classical buildings (2), dates from only 1951. The traditionalist architect Quinlan Terry has contributed to further expansion of the College buildings.

The expansive College court has been compared with that of the University of Virginia, also originating in the early 19th century, and founded by Thomas Jefferson.

The College has long been particularly strong in the study of medicine and the law.The College's Latin motto is: Quaerere verum ('Seek the truth').

Since 2003, the Master of Downing College has been Professor Barry Everitt, FRS, who holds a Chair in Behavioural Neuroscience in the University of Cambridge.

Some alumni

Prominent alumni of Downing College have included literary critic F. R. Leavis (1895-1978), former Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company Sir Trevor Nunn (1940-), former England cricket captain Mike Atherton (1968-), and many others.


(1) C. R. Benstead, Portrait of Cambridge, London: Robert Hale, 1968, p. 191

(2) The serious Tim Rawle disagrees, however, that the style of the Chapel and the surrounding North Range have actually attained a suitable style. Tim Rawle, Tim Rawle, Cambridge Architecture, London Trefoil Books, 1985, p. 140.

Also worth seeing

Among the numerous visitor attractions in Cambridge are: the Bridge of Sighs at St John's College, the Cam River and The Backs; Senate House and King's College Chapel, and many others.


How to get there

Continental Airlines flies from New York Newark Airport to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. Rail services link Cambridge with London's Liverpool Street and St Pancras railroad stations. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada

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