The Radcliffe Camera

Address: Radcliffe Square, Oxford, OX1 4AJ, United Kingdom
Telephone: 01865 277200

- Free


This circular library is an iconic Oxford building.

The Radcliffe has been many things to many authors. JRR Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, based Sauron's temple to Morgoth on its muscular circularity. Philip Pullman saw it as part of Lyra's Oxford in The Golden Compass. The building often crops up in Inspector Morse and has featured in the films Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), The Saint (1997), and The Red Violin (1998).

I find this superb piece of Palladian architecture almost over the top in its grandeur. Ironically it is the memorial to one John Radcliffe, physician to William III and Mary II of England, who resolved to build a library in Oxford at least two years before his death in 1714. Radcliffe was not a bookish man and at the time of the reading of his will some wag quipped that it was as if some eunuch had resolved to build himself a seraglio (a harem of sorts).

The building was intended to house a science library. It took forever to build as Oxford did not have a Radcliffe Square in 1714, in fact it had few public spaces of this size. A number of tenement houses fronting Catte Street, various gardens and quite a lot of Brasenose College's outbuildings had to be purchased and demolished before foundations could even be dug.

At one point the plans were going to be drawn by the great Nicholas Hawksmoor (who designed my favourite Oxford college, All Souls, which occupies a site just next to the Radcliffe) or even Hawksmoor's master, Sir Christopher Wren or the great Vanbrugh. But the work went eventually to James Gibbs who created this outrageous Italianate temple for the university.

The Radcliffe was completed in 1748 and is the earliest example in England of a circular library. The ground floor is heavily rusticated and was originally open to the elements in the Italian manner. The first floor is divided into bays by coupled Corinthian columns supporting the continuous entablature. The top of the building is a lanterned dome on an octagonal drum, with a balustraded parapet with vases.

The construction used local stone from Headington and Burford. In 1863, when the building had become a reading-room of the Bodleian Library, the arches were glazed in and a new entrance was created on the north side in place of a circular window with stone steps leading up to it.

Today the Radcliffe Camera functions as a reading room on two floors. The Radcliffe Library now stands on the corner of Parks Road and South Parks Road in the science area of the university, next to the Museum of Natural History, and much of it is underground.

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