Radcliffe Camera

The Radcliffe Camera(Camera, meaning “room” in French)(colloquially, “Rad Cam”; “Radder” in 1930s slang) is a building in Oxford, England, designed by James Gibbs in the English Palladian style and built in 1737–1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library.

It was known that John Radcliffe, physician to William III and Mary II of England, 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 thought a 90 ft room would be built on Exeter College land, and that the lower storey would be a library for Exeter College and the upper story Radcliffe’s Library. Such plans were indeed prepared, by Nicholas Hawksmoor (fourteen ‘Designs of Printing and Town Houses of Oxford by Mr Hawksmoor’ were among the drawings offered for sale after Hawksmoor’s death), the plans are now in the Ashmolean Museum. Radcliffe’s will, however, proved on 8 December 1714, clearly showed his intention that the library be built in the position it now occupies, stating:

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 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.

A number of tenement houses fronting Catte Street, built right up to the Schools, some gardens, Brasenose College outbuildings and Black Hall occupied the site required for the library. A number of colleges became involved in the development of the site. An added problem was that Brasenose required an equal amount of land fronting High Street in return for the land they were being asked to give up. As a consequence, the Trustees had to negotiate with the owners and the tenants of the houses. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1720 that enabled any corporations within the University to sell ground for building a library. The negotiations dealing with Catte Street took over twenty years.

The choice of architect had been considered as early as 1720 – Christopher Wren, John Vanbrugh, Thomas Archer, John James, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and James Gibbs were considered. In 1734 Hawksmoor and Gibbs were invited to submit plans. Hawksmoor made a wooden model of his design which is in the Bodleian. Gibbs was eventually chosen for the building.

On 17 May 1737, the foundation stone was laid. The progress of the building and the craftsmen employed is detailed both in the Minute Books of the Trustees and the Building Book, which supplement information given by Gibbs in his Bibliotheca Radcliviana. An extract 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.

Francis Smith, the father of William, was chosen as one of the masons, but died in 1738 and was succeeded by his son near the beginning of building. In 1739, John Townesend also succeeded his father on the latter’s death.

The building was completed in 1748, and a librarian appointed, as was a porter. The opening ceremony took place on 13 April 1749 and soon known as ‘the Physic Library’. Despite its name, its acquisitions were varied for the first sixty years, but from 1811 its intake was confined to works of a scientific nature. During the first half of the 19th century the collections included coins, marbles, candelabra, busts, plaster casts, and statues. These collections have since been moved to more specifically appropriate sites. Between 1909 and 1912 an underground book store of two floors was constructed beneath the north lawn of the library with a tunnel connecting it with the Bodleian, invisibly linking the two library buildings, something envisaged by Henry Acland in 1861.

After the Radcliffe Science Library moved into another building, the Radcliffe Camera became home to additional reading rooms of the Bodleian Library. The freehold of the building and adjoining land was transferred from the Radcliffe Trustees to the University in 1927. The interior of the upper reading-room houses a six foot marble statue of John Radcliffe, carved by John Michael Rysbrack. It now holds books from the English, history, and theology collections, mostly secondary sources found on Undergraduate and Graduate reading lists. There is space for around 600,000 books in rooms beneath Radcliffe Square.

Contemporaries found great irony in the fact that the iconoclast Radcliffe, who scorned book-learning, should bequeath a substantial sum for the founding of the Radcliffe Library. Sir Samuel Garth quipped that the endowment was “about as logical as if a eunuch should found a seraglio.”

In November 2010, the Radcliffe Camera was occupied by students for over twenty four hours, as part of wider national protest against proposed changes to university funding and substantial increases in the cost of tuition.

The building is the earliest example in England of a circular library. It is built in three main stages externally and two stories 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.
The construction used local stone from Headington and Burford, which was then ashlar faced. The dome and cupola are covered with lead. The original plan was for a stone dome, but after building 5 ft. 8 in. of the stonework, it had to be removed and the design was changed. 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, 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.

2 thoughts on “Radcliffe Camera

  1. Really great architectural study. Its amazing how tiny details like the bikes and figures help to animate without detracting from the period feel of the scene.
    Regards, John.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: