Is there anyone who doesn’t like to doodle? This is clearly not a modern trait. As ‘Doodle Day’ 2023 approaches in September, it seemed timely that we should come across some rather charming drawings by one of the examiners signing his name in two ‘Registers of Examinations’ held by the University Archives.
Frederick York Powell (1850-1904) was a law lecturer and examiner (he later became the Regius Professor of Modern History, 1894-1904) whose duties included lecturing and examining on political economy for the Pass School. The Pass School was introduced in the second half of the nineteenth century for those students who did not seek honours and offered the opportunity to study a different combination of subjects (see this previous blog for more details on the The Pass School)
Powell was an examiner for Pass School Group B (which included political economy) from 1877 until at least 1888, but he did not examine every term or every year. It is through his records of examinations that we meet his doodles.
Whenever Powell was the one to write the list of names of successful candidates, he bracketed together the names of the three (or sometimes four) examiners, who signed their names underneath, and drew a face as part of that bracket. Powell had extremely neat and legible handwriting, which was not always the case of examiners at this time.
One of the fascinating things about Powell’s doodles is that whilst he consistently draws faces, they are all different. It’s tempting to wonder whether these drawings were actually caricatures of his fellow examiners or other academics in Oxford. The pictures are not always kind, sometimes showing exaggerated features:
It is important to remember that these registers were administrative records and were the official record kept by the University. As such, it’s all the more striking that Powell doodled so frequently – it wasn’t a momentary slip in an instance of absent-mindedness, but something he did consistently across several years. It is tempting to speculate as to whether his fellow examiners approved of such decorations or rather disapproved of his flamboyant style.
The second register featuring Powell’s doodles is the Register of Examinations for Modern History, 1872-1913, where he was an examiner from 1886 onwards. The examples in this volume are typical Powell style but the faces are different. The one below looks rather like Voldemort in Harry Potter!
Of all the faces drawn by Powell, of which these are only a selection, my favourite is shown below. The face looks rather elegant and distinguished with quite a head of hair:
There are no other examples of examiners doodling or drawing like Powell in these two registers. If Powell was hoping to inject a little light heartedness or fun into a serious administrative record and perhaps encourage others to do the same, it does not look like this happened. It would be interesting to discover whether Powell continued to doodle once he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History in 1894. I could find no further examples of doodles by Powell from this date onwards within any records held by the University Archives.
According to his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required), Powell seems to have been a rather original yet disorganised character, not necessarily renowned for his scholarship but for his generosity of his time and sense of fun. I rather suspect that Powell may have continued to doodle no matter what position he held.
For other examples of drawings and doodles on records in the University Archives see Notes in the margin | Archives and Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library (ox.ac.uk)
For further information on Frederick York Powell, see his Wikipedia entry.