The Radcliffe Camera

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1954.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


'The Radcliffe Camera', A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, (London, 1954), pp. 55-56. British History Online [accessed 25 June 2024].

. "The Radcliffe Camera", in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, (London, 1954) 55-56. British History Online, accessed June 25, 2024,

. "The Radcliffe Camera", A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, (London, 1954). 55-56. British History Online. Web. 25 June 2024,


At least two years before the death of Dr. John Radcliffe in 1714 it was known that he intended to build a library in Oxford, and it was thought that the new building would take the form of an extension westwards of the Selden End of the Bodleian. According to Francis Atterbury, Dean of Christ Church, a room, 90 ft. long, was to be built on ground belonging to Exeter College, the lower story of which was to be a library for the college and the upper Radcliffe's Library. (fn. 1) Plans for such a building were, in fact, prepared by Nicholas Hawksmoor, and are now preserved in the Ashmolean Museum. But Radcliffe's will, proved on 8 December 1714, stated quite clearly his intention that his library should be built in the position it now occupies. The relevant portion reads thus:
And will that my executors pay forty thousand pounds in the terme of ten years, by yearly payments of four thousand pounds, the first payment thereof to begin and be made after the decease of my said two sisters for the building a library in Oxford and the purchaseing the house the houses [sic] between St Maries and the scholes in Catstreet where I intend the Library to be built, and when the said Library is built I give one hundred and fifty pounds per annum for ever to the Library Keeper thereof for the time being and one hundred pounds a year per annum for ever for buying books for the same Library.

The ground required for the library was occupied in 1714 by a number of tenement houses fronting Cat Street the most northerly of which was built right on to the Schools, some gardens and outbuildings belonging to Brasenose College, and Black Hall. (fn. 2) A number of other colleges were involved in the ownership of 'on account of ye building of ye new Print House'. It may be added that 14 'Designs of Printing and Town Houses of Oxford by Mr. Hawksmoor' were among the drawings offered for sale after Hawksmoor's death (B.M., S.C. 426). the site, and an additional complication arose from the fact that Brasenose required an equal amount of ground fronting High St. in return for that which they were being asked to relinquish. The Trustees had, therefore, to treat also with the tenants of the houses and the owners of the land for which Brasenose was asking in compensation. In 1720 an Act of Parliament was passed to enable any corporations within the University to sell ground for building a library. The protracted negotiations for acquiring the Cat Street site occupied the Radcliffe Trustees for just over twenty years and at length on 17 May 1737, the foundation stone of the new library was laid.

The Trustees had begun to think of the choice of an architect as early as 1720. Wren, Vanbrugh, Thornhill, Archer, James, Hawksmoor, and Gibbs were all considered, but it was not until 1734 that the last two were actually invited to submit plans. Hawksmoor produced a wooden model of his proposed building, which is still preserved in the Bodleian, but the plans of James Gibbs were finally selected and the work entrusted to him. (fn. 3) The Minute Books of the Trustees and the Building Book, which have been preserved, contain very full details of the progress of the building and of the craftsmen employed upon it, which supplement the information given in Gibbs's own work Bibliotheca Radcliviana. In it he states: 'Mr. William Townsend of Oxford, and Mr. William Smith of Warwick, were employed to be masons; Mr. John Philipps to be the carpenter and joiner; Mr. George Devall to be plumber; Mr. Townsend junior to be stone carver; Mr. Linel of Long-acre, London, to be carver in wood; Mr. Artari, an Italian, to be their plaisterer in the fret work way; Mr. Michael Rysbrack to be sculptor, to cut the Doctor's figure in marble; and Mr. Blockley to be locksmith.' In actual fact Francis Smith, the father of William, was originally chosen as one of the masons, but he died in 1738 and was succeeded by his son almost at the beginning of building operations. Likewise, John Townesend succeeded his father on the latter's death in 1739. (fn. 4)

The building, the earliest example in England of a circular library, consists of three main stages and of two stories internally, the upper one containing a gallery. It is of Headington and Burford stone, ashlar faced, and is finished with a lead-covered dome and cupola. The original intention was to construct a stone dome, but the design was changed after 5 ft. 8 in. of the stonework had been built, which had to be removed. The ground-stage is rusticated and has a series of eight pedimented projections, the cornices of which are carried round the building. The main stage is divided into bays by coupled Corinthian columns supporting the main entablature. This, in turn, is surmounted by a balustraded parapet with vases. The interior walls and dome were originally distempered but this has since been removed, revealing the fact that all the decoration up to the uppermost cornice is carved in stone. The decorative work of the dome alone is of plaster. (fn. 5)

Although the building was completed in 1748, a librarian appointed, and also a porter, who was to be equipped with a gown and a staff and have a salary of £20 per annum, the opening ceremony did not take place until 13 April 1749. The new library was from the first known as the Physic Library, 'being to consist of all Sorts of Books belonging to the Science of Physic, as Anatomy, Botany, Surgery, and Philosophy', (fn. 6) but the accessions it received during the first sixty years of its existence bore little relation to this description, and it was not until 1811 that its intake was confined to works of a scientific nature. Accessions to the library did not, however, consist entirely of books. During the first half of the 19th century it became the home for coins, marbles, candelabra, busts, plaster casts, and statues, but in recent years most of these have been placed in other repositories more suited to their proper care and display.

The basement story was originally an open arcade with a vaulted stone ceiling, bearing in the centre Radcliffe's coat of arms. The arches of the arcade were filled by iron grilles, three of which were in the form of gates which were closed at night, and through which access was gained to the library by way of the grand staircase. These grilles still remain. The glazing of the arches, the construction of a new north entrance where once was a circular window, and the addition of the stone steps leading up to it, were carried out in 1863 when the building had become a reading-room of the Bodleian. In 1854 the library was, for the first time, properly warmed and lighted. Hitherto a very indifferent system of lighting and heating the gallery by gas had been in operation since 1835. Between 1909 and 1912 an underground bookstore of two floors was constructed beneath the north lawn of the library, and a tunnel connecting it with the Bodleian, thus at last unobtrusively linking the two buildings, a project which had been envisaged by Henry Wentworth Acland in his Report to the Radcliffe Trustees in 1861, when he advocated a covered arcade across Radcliffe Square.

Both stories of the library are now used as readingrooms of the Bodleian, the freehold of the building with adjoining land having been transferred by the Radcliffe Trustees to the University in 1927. The interior of the upper reading-room is graced by Rysbrack's statue of Dr. Radcliffe in marble, 6 ft. high, the carving of which cost £220.

The ground around the library was originally partly paved, partly cobbled, and partly gravelled. (fn. 7) In 1751 the perimeter was defined by stone posts and obelisks surmounted by lamps. These, with the exception of three which still survive at the entrance to Brasenose Lane, were probably removed in 1827 when the lawns were laid down and the iron railings erected. The latter were removed in 1936, thereby much enhancing the appearance of the noble building they had encircled for over 100 years. (fn. 8)


  • 1. The Epistolary Correspondence of Francis Atterbury, 1784, iii, 307; J. Ingram, Memorials of Oxford, iii, pt. 6, p. 13; Bodl. Quart. Rec., viii, 209.
  • 2. For a facsimile of a ground plan said to be preserved in the Radcliffe Library see J. Skelton, Oxonia antiqua restaurata, 2nd ed., 1843, p. 141.
  • 3. For a discussion of Hawksmoor's and Gibbs's plans see Miss S. Lang in The Architectural Review, Apr. 1949.
  • 4. For further information about the Townesends see W. G. Hiscock, ibid. Oct. 1945; also, about the Smiths, E. G. Tibbits in Bodl. Lib. Rec., i, 231.
  • 5. See Bodl. Quart. Rec., iv, 255.
  • 6. J. Pointer, Oxoniensis Academia, 1749, p. 145.
  • 7. Many engravings of the exterior of the library and its surrounds are to be found in the Bodleian Library, particularly in volumes shelf-marked MS. Top. Oxon. a. 36 and G.A. Oxon. a. 46.
  • 8. For a more detailed account of its history see Bibliotheca Radcliviana, 1749–1949 (Catalogue of an Exhibition held in the Bodleian Library … to commemorate the bi-centenary of the opening of the Radcliffe Library).