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Insider Info: The Story of the Radcliffe Camera

2nd December 2015

Oxford University – and indeed Oxford itself – is filled with landmark buildings and stunning architecture, so for one building to be able to stand out from all of the others it does have to be rather spectacular. Yet, even within the ‘city of dreaming spires’ the Radcliffe Camera does just that.

The majestic Radcliffe Camera (a term that simply means room) is often featured in ‘general’ photography of the University and it’s a structure that many who have never even been near the place can identify, or at least recognise as a part of the storied institution. It certainly becomes familiar to Campus Oxford students, as it sits adjacent to Brasenose College, becoming a part of their daily life while studying at Oxford on a gap year or summer program. But just what is this place and how did it come to be? The story behind it is actually rather fascinating, as we’ll now explain.

A Very Exacting Bequest

Oxford University, and the city that surrounds it, is filled with structures dreamt up by some of the foremost names in the history of British architecture. But previous success and fame was no guarantee that a certain architect’s work would be chosen, as no less than Sir Christopher Wren was to discover when the search began in 1720 for the right plans and designs for a new building funded by the estate of one Dr. John Radcliffe, an English physician, academic and politician.

Dr. John Radcliffe

Dr. John Radcliffe

Dr Radcliffe’s bequest to University was very specific in its nature. Not only did he decree that the building funded by his money should be a library and nothing else, but he even laid out where it should be built, despite the fact that the land was currently occupied several rows of tenement housing for University staff and a large set of gardens belonging to Brasenose College.

In his will, which is preserved at the Ashmolean Museum, Radcliffe wrote; “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.”

A number of architects were invited as early as 1721 to submit initial sketches for the Radcliffe camera structure. These included Wren, Vanbrugh, Thornhill, Archer, James, Hawksmoor, and Gibbs, all prominent in their time. However, it was not until 1734, when the Radcliffe sisters had died (as had Wren) that just two men were invited to submit final plans; Nicholas Hawksmoor and James Gibbs.

Nicholas' Hawksmoor's Vision of the Radcliffe Camera

Nicholas’ Hawksmoor’s Vision of the Radcliffe Camera

Both were very keen, with Hawksmoor even creating a scale wooden model of his proposed design, a model that can still be seen in the Ashmolean today. But it was Gibbs who won out and his circular library, the first such library of its kind in Britain, was finally completed by 1748 and opened to students a year later.

The Radcliffe Camera Today

Over 200 years after it was opened the Radcliffe Camera is still in use, with both floors designated as reading rooms of the Bodleian. Unlike many of Oxford University’s most iconic buildings it is not freely open to the general public and so students who get to venture inside are receiving something of a special privilege.

The Radcliffe Camera interior today.

The Radcliffe Camera interior today.

These restrictions have not stopped the camera from gaining its place in pop culture though. J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, once remarked that the building resembled Sauron’s temple to Morgoth on Númenor and the best known of Dorothy L. Sayer’s books, Gaudy Night, features at its heart a meeting between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane on its balustraded circular rooftop. In more recent years both ‘Inspector Morse’ and ‘Inspector Lewis’ , storied TV mystery series, were allowed to film within its walls and it was was used as a location in the films Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), Opium Wars (Yapian zhanzheng) (1997), The Saint (1997), and The Red Violin (1998).

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