The Sphinx and The Gryphon - University of Leeds Archive

Discover how these mythological creatures have shaped the identity of the University of Leeds Crest and its student newspaper

By Leeds University Library Galleries

University of Leeds Archive

Front cover of The Gryphon, volume 1 issue 1 (1897-12-01/1897-12-01)Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections

Sir Nathan Bodington, the Principal of the Yorkshire College at Leeds, had a favourite statuette of a red sphinx on his desk, a trophy from a visit to Greece. Read on to find out how this holiday souvenir became part of the history of what is now the University of Leeds.

In 1887 the College had become part of the federal Victoria University with Manchester and Liverpool, and people at Leeds felt that it needed to strengthen its own corporate identity.  The creation of an heraldic shield (or ‘coat of arms’) for the Yorkshire College, and a college magazine were both seen as important steps towards doing that, as Liverpool and Manchester had already done.   Liverpool, however, had chosen the name ‘Sphinx’ for their magazine, so Leeds settled for ‘’The Gryphon’ instead.    

Expressing the need for a strong, unified identity, the Editor in the very first issue of 'The Gryphon', in December 1897, said “The different their own work...[There is] a danger they may forget that they are parts of one whole...”

This shield is described in heraldic terms as: Gules [red], on a chevron or [gold], a serpent coiled [nowed] proper between in chief two roses of York irradiated argent [silver/white] and in base a fleece or. The crest is described as: on a wreath gules and argent a Greek sphinx sejant [sitting] gules. 

Sir Nathan determined that the red sphinx would become part of the new design.      The front cover of this first issue of 'The Gryphon' shows the Sphinx as the crest above the newly designed shield of the Yorkshire College. This design was never officially granted by the College of Arms in London.

The unusual ‘barber’s pole’ colours may relate to the Leeds School of Medicine, while the knotted snake shown on the chevron is the crest in the coat of arms of the Dukes of Devonshire.  A member of that family was one of the more prominent patrons of the College, Lord  Frederick Cavendish, M.P. 

Close-up of the official University of Leeds Grant of Arms (1905/1905)Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections

The University of Leeds was given its royal charter in April, 1904. Its coat of arms was granted on 10th August 1905; the red sphinx remained as the crest above the shield.        

The main part of the official blazon for the shield is: ‘vert [green], a book proper [natural colouring] edged and clasped or [gold], and inscribed with the words  ET AUGEBITUR SCIENTIA, between in chief three silver molets [five-pointed ‘stars’] and in base a rose argent seeded proper’.  The Latin motto translates as 'And knowledge will be increased.'   

Representation of the University of Leeds crest in The Gryphon special edition Ten Pictures (1922/1923)Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections

The three molets are taken from the coat of arms for the City of Leeds, and originally featured in the personal coat of arms of Sir Thomas Danby, first Mayor of Leeds in the 1660s.   Molets are named after the old French word for spur-rowel (on the heels of riding boots), but in Scottish heraldry these unpierced ones are called stars. 

Illustration of Crest (1954/1954) by A. N. ShimminOriginal Source: University of Leeds Special Collections

The style of helmet, shown here, comes from the University being a corporate body, and the mantling - the green and white artistically torn material attached to the top of the helmet - is assumed in line with the blazon above, as is the ‘barber’s pole’ element, called the torse, which is taken to be derived from two twisted scarves of those colours.    

Front cover of The Gryphon: Second Series, volume 3 issue 1 (1921-11/1921-11)Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections

Artistic variants of the University’s shield include those shown here which show the helmet and mantling.  Some have quite subtle changes. See if you can spot any!    

Article entitled The Sphinx and the Gryphon (1922-02/1922-02)Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections

In this February 1922 article in ‘The Gryphon’, Professor Smithells wrote: “The sphinx has had a hard time of it since it came into the service of the University, for not only has it been miscalled by the opprobrious name of gryphon but it has been figured or blobbed on paper or other media 

(which as chairman of the Refectory Committee I refrain from particularising) in forms and colours which one can hardly believe tolerable to any aesthetic school whatever.”

Price list for Lawson Hardy's (1940-05/1940-05)Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections

It is not known if he was referring to earlier versions of the Union Tie, as mentioned in the advert in this May 1940 issue of 'The Gryphon'.    

Front cover of The Gryphon: Third Series, volume 5 issue 6 (1940-05/1940-05)Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections

For a long period 'The Gryphon' had on its front cover a green gryphon holding by its claws a red version of the University shield.    Although 'The Gryphon' as originally conceived ended production in 1961, only a few years’ ago its name was chosen to be the one for the re-launched student newspaper.      

Credits: Story

The items in this exhibition are from the University of Leeds Archive which preserves the records of the University of Leeds and its predecessors, giving us an insight into past University life.   

See the full coat of arms for the University of Leeds here

For more information on heraldry, see Heraldry of the World
The University of Leeds and predecessor student newspapers have been fully digitised. Search the newspapers here  
See more highlights from our student newspapers here 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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