Thomas COMBE (1796–1872)
Martha COMBE (1806–1893)
Founders of St Barnabas, philanthropists and patrons of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
St Barnabas’ Church, Jericho, Oxford
Thomas Combe was the son of a Leicestershire bookseller who came to the Clarendon Press in 1838 as master printer and partner. He was responsible for the bible publishing side. This was a lucrative part of the business and the proceeds in 1850 had enabled the University to pay for the Natural History Museum and the University Galleries. Combe purchased and modernised the Wolvercote Paper Mill to ensure the plentiful supply of good quality paper for bible printing.
The Jericho suburb developed around the new Clarendon Press building, completed in 1832, and housed the print workers. Thomas Combe gave benefactions from his personal fortune: he created schools, built St Luke’s Chapel at the Radcliffe Infirmary and most importantly St Barnabas as the focal place of worship for the area. The Combes commissioned Sir Arthur Blomfield to design the church and the richly decorated interior reflects their Tractarian views. The church was consecrated by Bishop Wilberforce in 1869 and the campanile erected in 1872.
The Combes were attracted to the religious sentiment and symbolism of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and became major patrons, commissioning and buying their paintings. The earliest exponents Millais and Collins lived and painted at the Printer’s House on the Clarendon Press site. Collins’ Convent Thoughts depicts the garden as the background of the painting. Combe formed an important friendship with Holman Hunt and commissioned him to paint The Light of the World in the quadrangle of the Press for a fee of 400 guineas. Morris and Burne-Jones were inspired by the paintings displayed in the Combes’ drawing room when they came up to Exeter in 1853 and resolved to join the Brotherhood.
When Martha Combe died she left the collection to the University Galleries, now the Ashmolean. She had given The Light of the World to Keble when Thomas died and now bequeathed money in her will for the side chapel which holds it. Martha had also created the Children’s Block on the Radcliffe Infirmary site in 1877.
The Combes are buried in St Sepulchre’s Cemetery.
- Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Jon Whiteley, Oxford and the Pre-Raphaelites; Hibbert, Encyclopaedia of Oxford; St Barnabas’ website
- Picture: Unveiling ceremony
The plaque at St Barnabas’ Church, Jericho, Oxford was blessed after the service on Sunday 25 February 2007. Dr John Whiteley, Assistant Keeper of Western Art at the Ashmolean, gave a talk on the Combes at the reception.
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board
Printer to the University
Founders of this church,
philanthropists and patrons of the
Friends of St Barnabas