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Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, UK

Issue 63 Oct / Nov 2011 : Architecture : Performance


Simon Dove, Associate at Hoare Lea Lighting, describes the new lighting scheme at one of Christopher Wren’s architectural gems.

The Sheldonian Theatre is one of Sir Christopher Wren’s most celebrated buildings - in 1994 it was described by the European Commission as “one of the architectural jewels of Oxford”.

Its purpose was to provide a secular venue for the principal meetings and public ceremonies of the University. This remains its purpose today, being the principal assembly room of Oxford University, and the regular meeting-place of Congregation, the body of resident Masters of Arts that controls the University’s affairs. It is also available for hire for music recitals and similar functions.

The Sheldonian was constructed between 1664 and 1669 and was funded by Gilbert Sheldon, Warden of All Souls College and later Archbishop of Canterbury. The design of the building was derived from the Roman theatre of Marcellus, as illustrated by Sebastiano Serlio in his Architecture 1540, which was open to the sky.

Hoare Lea Lighting was commissioned to design a new scheme that would improve the quality of the lighting, bring the equipment up to date and accommodate events, while remaining sympathetic to the historic surroundings and architecture. Significant conservation and restoration work was ongoing - this included the return of the colour scheme to the original Christopher Wren interior.

One of the dominant features of the space is the painted ceiling, by Robert Streater, Serjeant Painter to King Charles II. It comprises 32 separate panels, showing ‘Truth descending upon the Arts and Sciences to expel Ignorance from the University’. The largest panel measures more than 6.0 x 3.6 metres. Following investigations into the suspected movement of the timber cornicing around the perimeter of the auditorium in 2004, the decision was taken to remove all 32 painted canvas ceiling panels from site for conservation and repair.

Reinstatement of the ceiling was completed in 2008. As part of the new lighting design the intention was to give this more prominence within the space.

The lighting scheme preceding Hoare Lea’s solution was installed in 1963. It comprised four large brass chandeliers that dominated the theatre and interrupted views to the restored painted ceiling. The chandeliers also inhibited views from the upper balcony to the theatre space below. Wall mounted, column mounted and pendant luminaires were also used to light the space, but these detracted from the overall appearance. Furthermore the lighting did not provide enough light for events and temporary lighting was required.

Hoare Lea Lighting’s concept was to create a scheme that would reflect Wren’s original design. The chandeliers, the wall and column mounted fittings and the pendant luminaires were removed and the building was lit from a number of concealed positions.

Carefully located, linear fluorescent luminaires by Optelma utilise an asymmetric optic. Concealed within the window sills, these cannot be seen from normal viewing positions and provide wonderful washes of light to the window reveals and vaulted ceilings in the Upper and Lower Galleries. This allows users to enjoy the volume of the space as originally intended.

The lighting mimics daylight and throws light across the painted ceiling so that it can be appreciated at night. The effect is captivating and has greatly improved the building’s street presence and public perception, with passers-by stopping to take photographs.

Located at the balcony edge of the Upper Gallery, a Concord three-circuit track system has been introduced. This provides a flexible lighting system to accommodate various types of spotlight. Large dimmable 300W tungsten halogen Ivela 7 spotlights are employed specifically for the performances these can be removed as and when required.

The Evolution control system by Mode Lighting features simple scene setting. Working with the Custodian of the Sheldonian, various scenes for performances were agreed. This gives the theatre staff more control and ensures each event has an appropriate ambience.

In terms of maintenance the new scheme represents a significant improvement. Fluorescent luminaires are used predominantly instead of GLS lamps, with tungsten now only used for a few hours in the evening when performances are scheduled.

The new design has also resulted in an energy saving of 50 per cent - a total of 5.14kW compared to 10.38kW under the old scheme. This reduction in energy use has been achieved while also providing improved illuminance levels and a far better lit environment that, with its uncluttered design, is closer to how the Sheldonian would have appeared when first built.

David Holt, Oxford University Estates Department, is delighted with the result: “Hoare Lea Lighting’s design complements Wren’s architecture beautifully and has helped to successfully restore the appearance of the Auditorium to Sir Christopher Wren’s original design by providing uninterrupted views around the space and of the ceiling paintings. The delicate lighting also enhances the external appearance of the building by subtly highlighting some of the external stone features and adding to the building’s street presence. Furthermore, the scheme is highly functional and its simple pre-programmed controls allow events to be lit easily, achieving numerous atmospheric effects.”


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