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The glowing red bricks and blooming gardens of Newnham College’s Champneys’ Buildings are deemed a ‘hidden gem’ of Cambridge — but the number of appearances they make both in literature and onscreen in films such as Red Joan and even a recent episode of Grantchester suggest that the college is finally getting noticed. 

Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, (a feature of many English students’ personal statements, I’m sure) was partially inspired by a lecture she gave to the Newnham Arts Society in 1928, and the college’s gardens and architecture once again feature: 

‘The gardens […] lay before me […], wild and open, […] not orderly perhaps at the best of times, and now wind-blown and waving […]. The windows of the building, curved like ships’ windows among generous waves of red brick, changed from lemon to silver under the […] quick spring clouds.’

Champneys staunchly believed that architecture was ‘an art not a science’

Not originally considered a part of the university, Newnham was perceived as more of a cosy household than an academic institution. Its students still continued to view Newnham in this light, long after women could attain full degrees at Cambridge. In Still Life, alumna A.S Byatt commented that: ‘Newnham was in those days outside, but not far outside, Cambridge University proper. It had the proportions and atmosphere, with its Dutch red-brick gables, its corridors, landings, solid banisters, and mansarded attics, of a comfortable country house’. 

Basil Champneys (1842 – 1935) was Newnham’s architect from 1873 to 1913, and responsible for the college’s stylistic and architectural unity over the course of forty years. He was a more cerebral architect than most, heavily involved in Pre-Raphaelite artistic circles thanks to his friend the art critic Sidney Colvin. He staunchly believed that architecture was ‘an art not a science’, and his design of Newnham can be best described as a revival of the Queen Anne style, thanks to its simple charm, picturesque variety, and modified classicism. 

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The college consists of individual units; each building an appealing vignette in red-brick with white trim, connected by enclosed passages. These corridors are renowned, believed to be the second-longest continuous indoor corridor in Europe; built to prevent the women of the college stepping outside in the rain. Yet these were not Champneys’ idea — but rather a suggestion by Anne Clough, Newnham’s first principal, who thought that corridors would allow more light in and create pleasant garden views. Champneys was resistant to them at first:  

‘There can be through passages [a corridor running the length of the building] on the upper floors by a little sacrifice of accommodation and these passages can be made any width – but to make through passages on the ground floor would destroy the dining hall, and there would be no way of arranging for it except to make it an entirely independent building which would be I think an awkward and certainly very costly arrangement.’

But eventually, the corridors became essentially Newnham. In personal recollections and novels based on Newnham, a woman’s corridor was her social lifeline. New students were immediately greeted by corridor neighbours, and as friendships formed students would request to be placed near their friends along the same passage. Thus, the cliques that formed were based on corridor residents. 

Newnham forged its own path, measuring achievement on its own terms by celebrating the achievements of women amongst women.  

In a paper delivered at the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1903, Champneys argued that women’s colleges should be ‘of a more domestic character’, adopting what he called the ‘Domestic Collegiate’ style, hence the characteristic bow and oriel windows and dormers adorning Newnham. Champneys’ first work at the college was an early example of domestic ‘Queen Anne’. As such, it was an important part of a growing movement which began in the early 1870s and flourished, particularly in domestic work, until the end of the century. 

The style represented a new artistic attitude, valuing art and beauty for their own sake rather than a moral and didactic art laden with religious sentiment. Those involved in the emerging Aesthetic movement wanted to discard the heavy, dark and muscular Gothic and replace it with an architecture that embodied Matthew Arnold’s ‘sweetness and light’.

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The college’s early architecture contrasts with its fellow all-women’s college, Girton, initially designed in the Gothic revival by Alfred Waterhouse, Champneys’ near-contemporary. Their architectural differences reveal differing approaches to women’s education. Girton prided itself upon placing its students in direct competition with men. Newnham forged its own path, measuring achievement on its own terms by celebrating the achievements of women amongst women.  


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Mountain View

Why did I apply to Fitz? The architecture.

Such psychologies are seen in the construction of the corridors themselves (as opposed to the staircases that feature in most of other colleges): Newnham’s ‘double loaded corridor’ system differed from Girton, where the rooms were on one side of the building and corridors stretched down the other. The central system offered greater intimacy, and meant that passages in each house were not as long and institutional as many are at Girton. 

Settling into Newnham as a graduate student, Sylvia Plath observed: ‘here, I feel, is the place to create. It is quiet.’  You put it better.