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  • Writer's pictureMimi Goodall, PhD

A Brief History of Radcliffe Camera in Oxford

What is Radcliffe Camera?

Radcliffe Camera is a circular Neoclassical library in Oxford that was designed by James Gibbs in the 18th century.

Radcliffe camera in oxford

Radcliffe Camera History

‘I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking. It is all…like an opera’.

That’s a quote from Irish poet W. B. Yeats, who perfectly summed up the beauty and tranquillity of Oxford’s historic centre. Perhaps the most beautiful sight of all is the Radcliffe Camera: the great domed rotunda that graces Radcliffe Square. It’s a true architectural icon and synonymous with the university itself. There’s almost no more quintessentially ‘Oxford’ experience than walking along one of the narrow lanes leading onto the square and finding yourself face to face with its enormous cupola and glowing sandstone walls. In termtime, you’ll see students rushing to and from its entrance – it remains a working library and is home to the History Faculty’s impressive reference collection.

The Radcliffe Camera, or ‘Rad Cam’ as it’s affectionately known by students, was designed by architect James Gibbs and built in the 1730s and ’40s with a bequest of £40,000 from the will of Dr John Radcliffe, who died in 1714. It’s named after him and the Latin word camera, meaning ‘a room with a vaulted (or arched) roof’.

Radcliffe, a very successful physician, had been educated at Oxford and rose through the ranks of the medical profession before eventually becoming doctor to King William III and then Queen Anne. He was a very wealthy man and had begun to explore the idea of founding a library about two years before his death. Three of his designs proposed a rectangular building and two a rotunda. In the end the rotunda won out, and in his will Radcliffe decreed that the money he left should be used to purchase land, build the library, stock it with books and pay a full-time librarian. He even stipulated where the library should be built, despite the fact that the land was then occupied by several rows of tenement housing for university staff and extensive gardens belonging to Brasenose College. When it was built, the Radcliffe Camera was the first circular library in the country.

The new library did not inspire total admiration, however. The Rector of Lincoln College, Edward Tatham, wrote in 1773 that: ‘The writer... cannot help expressing his disapprobation of the situation of the Radclivian Library. Whatever merit this edifice reflects on the Architect, and splendour on the University, it certainly destroys the regularity of the area, and intercepts the view of every building in it’. Today, however, many people consider it the jewel in Oxford’s architectural crown.

Unfortunately, the camera is not open to members of the public but reserved for members of the university and the Bodleian Library. However, non-members can see the interior of the ‘Rad Cam’ by booking onto an hour-and-a-half guided tour organised through the Bodleian Libraries. As well as the Radcliffe Camera, the tour also visits the 15th-century Divinity School, Convocation House, Duke Humfrey’s medieval library and the modern Gladstone Link tunnel.

Embark on a unique journey with Urb’s Oxford self-guided walking tour app.


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