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Wolfson College Oxford: the Riviera College

Courtesy of Wolfson College (Archives), Oxford; photographer John Cairns

The Wolfson Foundation’s grant-making file on their relationship with Wolfson College Oxford, commences with an offer of £1.5 million for a new graduate college, omitting the negotiations that must have taken place in the months leading up to that point. What follows is a blow-by-blow account of how Wolfson’s generosity – what Sir Isaiah Berlin called “this noble and indispensable act” – was seen through to completion, and the construction of a new academic resource.

Running through this discourse is the formidable intellect, enthusiasm, and humour of Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), the first President of Wolfson College Oxford, who steered the new establishment into life and oversaw its construction. The architecture of Wolfson College was entrusted to the practice of Sir Philip Powell (1921-2003) and John Hidalgo Moya (1920-1994) the designers of the 1951 Festival of Britain’s ‘Skylon’. For Berlin, they produced democratic features, such as the College’s single common room and a punting harbour on the River Cherwell. Parts of the College buildings, now listed, were inspired by Isaiah Berlin’s love of Portofino Harbour in Italy, from where he sent postcards to the architects.

The establishment was based upon Iffley College, originally founded to provide a home for academic staff with no other college fellowships. But when the completed building complex opened in 1974, it was able to capitalise on the Wolfson grant (raised to £2 million and matched by the Ford Foundation) to become an all-graduate college with a distinctly international academic profile, in keeping with the pluralism of its founding President.

Explore the archives

  • WF/339/1/1
    Memorandum from Sir Harold Redman, 22 June 1966, to Sir Keneth Wheare, Vice-Chancellor, University of Oxford
  • WF/339/1/11a, b, c, d
    Speech on a decree for the creation of Wolfson College, 26 July 1966, to the Congregation of the University of Oxford
  • WF/339/1/13
    Newspaper cutting, The Daily Telegraph, 27 July 1966
  • WF/339/1/8a, b
    Letter from Sir Isaiah Berlin, Headington House, Headington, Oxford, 5 June 1967, to Leonard Wolfson, The Wolfson Foundation
  • WF/339/1/14
    Letter from Sir Isaiah Berlin, Headington House, Headington, Oxford, 13 July 1967, to Leonard Wolfson, The Wolfson Foundation
  • WF/339/1/31
    Newspaper cutting, The Daily Telegraph, 29 September 1966
  • WF/339/1/43
    Letter from Sir Folliott Sandford, University Registry, Clarendon Building, Oxford, 1 December 1966, to Sir Harold Redman, The Wolfson Foundation
  • WF/339/1/66a, b
    Summary Wolfson College meeting paper, by Sir Isaiah Berlin, 29 May 1967, to the Fellows of Wolfson College
  • WF/339/1/85
    Memorandum from Gilbert Monckton, 2nd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, 20 June 1967, to Leonard Wolfson, The Wolfson Foundation
  • WF/339/1/5
    Letter from Sir Isaiah Berlin, Wolfson College Office, 15 Banbury Road, Oxford, 29 November 1968, to Arundell Rea Leakey, The Wolfson Foundation
  • WF/339/1/112
    Map, working site plan from Ordnance Survey original for the purchase of lands in the construction of Wolfson College, Oxford, 1969
  • WF/339/1/4
    Newspaper cutting, ‘College topped out’, The Oxford Mail, 16 December 1972
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