Follow us | OXHC Magazine On Pintrest Follow OXHC Magazine On Facebook Tweet OXHC Magazine On Twitter OXHC On Instagram OXHC Club
An enchanting view of the Radcliffe Camera at night, pictured here from the north.

The Radcliffe Camera: A Study in Attention

For many years the Radcliffe Camera was something of a white elephant, but today, it is unquestionably one of the most iconic buildings in Oxford
Dr John Radcliffe (1652-1714), the benefactor of the Radcliffe Camera, and one of the most successful English physicians of his day.

"By his will, Dr John Radcliffe directed his Trustees to spend £40,000 on purchasing both the land for the new building and an endowment to pay a librarian and purchase books. Today the Radcliffe Camera is one of Oxford’s architectural glories."

Peter Holthusen


The Radcliffe Camera in Oxford is a living monument to a bygone age when classical architecture, exquisite art and elaborate craftsmanship defined the most admired public spaces. It is the finest example of 18th century Baroque architecture in England and a defining feature of Oxford’s famous skyline.

The late 17th and early 18th centuries saw a spate of library building in Oxford. Most of the new libraries of this era were built by the colleges, but the finest of them all, at least from an architectural point of view, was the brainchild of one philanthropic individual, Dr John Radcliffe (1652-1714), perhaps the most successful English physician of his day.

Radcliffe was born the son of George Radcliffe, an eminent attorney, in Wakefield, Yorkshire, and was educated at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School and Northallerton Grammar School. He graduated from the University of Oxford where he was an exhibitioner at University College tutored by Obadiah Walker, to become a Fellow of Lincoln College in 1670. He studied and then practised medicine in Oxford, but refused to take ‘holy orders’ and so had to leave his fellowship at Lincoln.

The clean and purposeful form of the interior gallery of Upper Camera.


He obtained his M.D. in 1682 and moved to London shortly afterwards. There he enjoyed great popularity and his skill at diagnosis soon established his reputation among the moneyed classes and brought him to the attention of the Royal Family, becoming Royal Physician to William III and Mary II. He thus amassed a considerable fortune.

In 1690 he was elected Member of Parliament for Bramber, a former manor, village and civil parish in the Horsham District of West Sussex, and in 1713 Member for Buckingham, a constituency he served until his death on 1st November 1714, aged 61. John Radcliffe is buried in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin.

On his death his estate was bequeathed to a number of charitable causes including the building of a new quadrangle, the Radcliffe Quad, in University College; the endowment of travelling medical scholarships; and the building of a new library, the Radcliffe Camera. Any significant residue, his Trustees were to apply “to such charitable purposes as they in their discretion should think best”. His wishes were gradually implemented during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Radcliffe Trustees subsequently applied the residue of his estate to a number of other major enterprises in Oxford: the Radcliffe Infirmary opened in 1770, the Radcliffe Observatory in 1794, the Radcliffe Science Library in 1902, and the John Radcliffe Hospital in 1970. The Radcliffe Trust still flourishes today.

By his will, Dr John Radcliffe directed his Trustees to spend £40,000 on purchasing both the land for the new building and an endowment to pay a librarian and purchase books. Today the Radcliffe Camera is one of Oxford’s architectural glories.

The site eventually chosen for the new library was to the south of Schools Quadrangle, in the middle of a new square (Radcliffe Square) formed by the demolition of a number of old tenement houses in School Street and Catte Street and bounded by All Souls and Brasenose Colleges and the University Church. Here, between 1737 and 1748, the monumental circular domed building – Oxford’s most impressive piece of classical architecture – went up to the designs of James Gibbs, and it was finally opened in 1749. The Radcliffe Camera (Camera, meaning “room” in Latin), was designed in the English Palladian style to initially house the Radcliffe Science Library. According to the terms of Radcliffe’s will, construction only began in 1737, although the intervening period saw the complex purchase of the site. The exterior was completed in 1747 and the interior finished by 1748, although the Library’s opening was delayed until 13th April 1749.

The building is the earliest example in England of a circular library. It is built in three main stages externally and two storeys internally, the upper one containing a gallery. The ground stage is heavily rusticated and has a series of eight pedimented projections alternating with niches. The central stage is divided into bays by coupled Corinthian columns supporting the continuous entablature. The pedimented windows stand above mezzanine openings, reflecting the interior arrangement. The top stage is a lanterned dome on an octagonal drum, with a balustraded parapet with vases.

From the very outset the construction used local stone from Headington and Burford, which was then ‘ashlar’ faced. The dome and cupola are covered with lead. Inside, the original walls and dome were distempered but this was later removed, revealing the decorations to be carved in stone. Only the decorative work of the dome is plaster.

Originally, the basement was an open arched arcade with a vaulted stone ceiling, with Radcliffe’s coat of arms in the centre. The arcade arches were fitted with iron grilles: three of them were gates which were closed at night, and which gave access to the Library by a grand staircase. In 1863, when the building had become a reading room of the Bodleian, the arches were glazed, and a new entrance was created on the north side in place of a circular window, with stone steps leading up to the entrance. The area around the Library was originally partly paved, partly cobbled, and partly gravelled. In 1751 stone posts and obelisks surmounted by lamps were placed around the perimeter. All but the three at the entrance to Brasenose Lane were removed around 1827 when the lawns were laid and iron railings installed.

Work on the exterior continued after the opening of the Library. In 1750, part of the land between the Camera and St Mary’s Church was remodelled to remove a dividing wall, level the ground and lay pebbles on it. This cost a total of £158.17, of which £100 came from the trust and the rest from the University. The old Convocation House was repaired in 1759 at a cost of £144. In 1751, the Trustees also agreed to the construction of 20 obelisks to hold gas lamps, which the University agreed to maintain. Only 14 were actually erected and in 1755 the Trustees reimbursed the University for the cost of maintaining them up to that point and took on the obligation itself out of the £100 per annum left by Radcliffe for the Library’s upkeep.

Upon completion, Francis Wise was appointed as its first librarian. Until 1810, the Library housed books covering a wide range of subjects, but under Dr George Williams it narrowed its focus to the sciences. Williams brought the Library from a state of neglect up to date, although by 1850 the Radcliffe Library still lagged behind the Bodleian. It was at this point that Henry Wentworth Acland, then librarian, laid out plans for the Radcliffe Library building to merge with the University and the Library’s collection of books to be moved to the newly constructed Radcliffe Science Library, which were accepted by the Library’s Trustees and the University. It was at this point that the building became known as the Radcliffe Camera, colloquially, “Rad Cam”, serving as a reading room for the Bodleian.

It was known that Radcliffe intended to build a library in Oxford at least two years before his death in 1714. It was thought that the new building would be an extension westwards of the Selden End of the Bodleian Library. Francis Atterbury, Dean of Christ Church, writing in December 1712 describes plans for a 90ft room on the site of neighbouring Exeter College, and that the lower storey would be a library for Exeter College and the upper storey, Radcliffe’s Library.

Plans were prepared by Nicholas Hawksmoor and are now held in the Ashmolean Museum. By 1714, however, Radcliffe had settled on a different site for his new library, to the south of the existing Bodleian. William Pittis, Radcliffe’s first biographer, ascribes the change of heart to excessive demands from the Rector and Fellows of Exeter College.

The Library’s collection grew very slowly in the early years. The first book to be placed in the library was identified by one contemporary account as Thomas Carte’s ‘A General History of England’. The first donation was some 50,000 pamphlets from a Mr Bartholomew of University College, subsequently gifted to the Bodleian in 1794.

The Radcliffe Camera not long ago completed a major refurbishment programme. One of the key alterations to the building was the change to the entrance, which is now from the south, rather from the north. A large footpath was also added through which visitors can walk up to the entrance, thus allowing easier disabled access, one of the main factors for the refurbishment.

Inside the Radcliffe Camera modern partitions and a staircase were removed and a new lift installed to give easier access to visitors and readers. The old Underground Bookstore under Radcliffe Square was also refurbished, with the creation of two new floors of open stack library space capable of housing 240,000 books as well as informal study areas for readers.

The platform lift enables visitors and readers with limited mobility to access the Camera for the first time. A Bodleian spokesman said: “The platform lift has been designed to respect the grandeur and magnificence of the Radcliffe Camera by being as non-invasive as possible, using glass to avoid restricting the through view to the windows on the Lower Reading Room.”

The work also involved the opening of a tunnel running underground between the Radcliffe Camera and the main library of the Old Bodleian building. The tunnel running under the square between the two libraries had previously only been used by staff.

Known as the Gladstone Link, after the great Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who was a student at Oxford, the refurbishment work meant that for the first time in its illustrious history readers were able to move underground between the two buildings. A new staircase was also wrapped around the platform lift, providing safe access to the Gladstone Link and replacing a very steep staircase that was put in during the installation of the Underground Bookstore.

The tunnel was previously used for transporting books on a 1940’s conveyor from the New Bodleian to the Old Bodleian and for transporting books by trolley to the Radcliffe Camera. The academic strategy of providing more books on open shelving, and the development of the New Bodleian into the Weston Library, meant that books were no longer delivered via the conveyor, and the section of the tunnel between the Old Bodleian and the Radcliffe Camera was refurbished.

This now legendary tunnel and conveyor have played an important role in the mythology of Oxford over the last 60 years – many people believe there is actually a hidden labyrinth of tunnels underneath the libraries. A section of the old conveyor has been preserved in the New Bodleian tunnel as a historical artefact.

For many years the Radcliffe Library, as it was called until 1860, was something of a white elephant, but today, this imposing architectural landmark is unquestionably one of the most iconic buildings in Oxford.


Related Articles: Odd Oxford: Beauty in the Undiscovered