A Comprehensive Guide to The Radcliffe Camera: Oxford’s Iconic Landmark

Oxford is renowned for its iconic landmarks, and the Radcliffe Camera building stands tall amongst them on the city skyline. This magnificent building has been a fixture of this city since 1737, and it radiates with history and grandeur.

If you have ever wondered what lies within this mysterious structure (spoiler, it’s the HFL -History Faculty Library), and if you can go inside (not unless on a guided tour, an Oxford student, who hold a Bodleian Libraries reader’s card), then now you know. But read on for more interesting titbits.

Because the Radcliffe Camera is one of the most recognisable buildings in Oxford City Centre, standing proud as if guarding some ancient secrets from passers-by. Its impressive dome rises above all other structures and can be seen from afar as a beacon of knowledge.

This article will provide an insightful look into the history of the Radcliffe Camera and discuss why it remains such a powerful symbol of education today. We’ll take you on a tour inside the building itself (because we paid the £20 tour fee) and explain what makes it so special compared to other places around Oxford.

tourists at radcliffe camera
The Radcliffe Camera is a popular tourist destination in Oxford

What Is the Radcliffe Camera?

The Radcliffe Camera is an iconic landmark in Oxford, and it can be seen as a symbol of the city’s scholarly history. Built between 1737-1749, this octagonal structure was commissioned by Dr John Radcliffe (who it’s named after) and designed by James Gibbs. Its purpose was to house the Bodleian Library, which still stands today as the second-largest library in Britain after the British Library.

Over time, the building has become a popular tourist attraction due to its impressive architecture and a beautiful central courtyard. Visitors are often awestruck when they catch their first glimpse of it.

Standing 140 feet tall, this majestic structure is not only visually stunning but also serves as a reminder of just how far we have come in terms of our academic achievements throughout time. It stands testament to a period where knowledge was revered above all else, something which will hopefully continue into future generations.

Although much has changed around it over the years, the Radcliffe Camera remains an integral part of Oxford’s culture and identity even today – an indisputable symbol of learning and progress that will never fade away.

The stories that have been passed down through generations have made the Radcliffe Camera even more special and meaningful for those who visit it today. From tales of famous scholars and Oxford University alumni such as William Wordsworth and JRR Tolkien who frequented here, to rumours of secret passageways beneath its walls – these mythical accounts add tremendous charm and character to this magnificent site.

And there is merit to this, as an underground bookstore lies beneath the lawn which is linked to the Old Library with tunnels.

History And Significance of The Radcliffe Camera

As mentioned in the article, The Rad Cam, affectionately known as the “heart of Oxford,” was an architectural masterpiece designed by James Gibbs and constructed between 1737 and 1749. The esteemed physician Dr John Radcliffe, upon his passing in 1714, generously bequeathed £40,000 to bring his vision to life. Recognized as one of the most successful physicians in England, Radcliffe’s aspiration for a library had been in motion for several years prior to his demise.

To ensure the sustained upkeep of the new Radcliffe library, an annual provision of £100 was allocated. However, it was stipulated that this fund would only become available 30 years after Radcliffe’s passing. As a result, more than three decades elapsed before the first stone was laid, as the intricate process of acquiring and demolishing the existing properties on the site posed significant challenges and delays.

In 1721, a select group of distinguished architects, including Nicholas Hawksmoor, James Gibbs, Christopher Wren, John Vanbrugh, Sir James Thornhill, Thomas Archer, and James, were invited to submit preliminary sketches for the design of the Radcliffe Camera. Nonetheless, it was not until 1734 that two individuals were shortlisted to present their final plans: Nicholas Hawksmoor and James Gibbs. Hawksmoor even crafted a remarkable scale wooden model showcasing his proposed design, which can still be admired at the Ashmolean Museum today.

In the end, it was Gibbs who emerged victorious in the competition with his revolutionary circular library design, marking the first of its kind in Britain. Construction of the building was finalized by 1748, specifically intended to house the Radcliffe Science Library, and it opened its doors to students a year later.

Initially operating independently from the Bodleian Library, which served as Oxford university’s primary library, the Radcliffe Camera underwent a transformation in the early 19th century. A concerted effort was made to concentrate on natural history and medical literature under the guidance of Librarian Dr George Williams. Williams revitalized the library, bringing it out of a state of neglect and into the modern era.

By 1860, the Radcliffe Science Library had become a part of the Bodleian Libraries, assuming the name “Radcliffe Camera.” Over time, the collections housed within the Camera gradually found new homes in various university libraries. Today, the Radcliffe Camera serves as the main reading room of the Bodleian Library, preserving its historical significance and providing a tranquil space for scholarly pursuits.

Since its construction, the Radcliffe Camera has garnered widespread admiration for both its interior and exterior. Its captivating design and meticulous craftsmanship have captivated the imaginations of countless individuals who have had the opportunity to experience its grandeur.

Pillar Detail Radcliffe Camera Oxford University England
The stone carved pillars and ornamental decorations

The Architecture of The Radcliffe Camera

Its intricate architectural design brings a sense of grandeur to its surroundings and has been admired by visitors for centuries. This building is an example of neoclassical architecture. The dome that sits atop was inspired by St Paul’s Cathedral in London and reflects light through its carefully placed windows during the day. Round towers on each corner add a touch of elegance while providing support to the main body of the building. Furthermore, it is constructed from stone with carved pillars and ornamental decorations which gives it a timeless look despite being over two hundred years old.

The Radcliffe Camera, a stunning architectural marvel, embodies the distinguished Palladian style that was prevalent throughout the United Kingdom during its construction. Although the movement’s influence was pervasive, it is clear that the renowned architect James Gibbs attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to resist its dominance.

Crafted from exquisite Headington freestone, the lower portion of the Radcliffe Camera exhibits a robust and enduring presence. In a seamless integration of artistic vision and structural integrity, the upper section boasts the use of Tayton stone, creating a harmonious blend of materials. The crowning glory of the Radcliffe Camera lies in its innovative dome, a ground-breaking design element at the time of its creation. Adhering to the principles of Palladian architecture, the dome showcases a symmetrical and repetitive pattern, embodying the elegance and grandeur that defines the Palladian style.

The Radcliffe Camera serves as both an aesthetic piece and an educational centre, housing part of the Bodleian Library since 1845. As you step inside, you will be amazed at how much can fit into such a small space – shelves filled with books line every wall up until they reach the top where four chandeliers hang down giving off a gentle glow.

Visiting The Radcliffe Camera

Located in the centre of town, it provides many opportunities for exploration and discovery. There are guided tours available for those looking to learn more about the history of one of England’s most beloved landmarks. The tours offer detailed information on both the architecture and culture behind this great building—a perfect way to get up close and personal with Oxford’s most treasured gem.

In addition, you can also visit other notable attractions such as the Divinity School, Convocation House, Duke Humphrey’s Library, and the upper reading room. To reach Radcliffe Square, the most convenient entrances are from the high street beside St. Mary the Virgin Church, Brasenose College Lane, or Catte Street. It is important to note that tours primarily operate on weekends and select weekdays.

For those seeking something a little less structured, simply strolling around the area can also be quite rewarding. With picturesque gardens surrounding it, as well as a variety of shops and cafes to explore nearby, spending time here will certainly not disappoint.

Radcliffe Camera in Oxford university
The Radcliffe Camera ins inside the Oxford university grounds

The Radcliffe Camera Library

Located within the grounds of Oxford University, it stands as a grand monument to learning and knowledge. This impressive edifice contains an incredible collection of books and manuscripts, dating back centuries. It is home to some of the oldest written works in Europe, including Bibles from the 16th century and volumes on ancient philosophy.

The Library comprises two distinct reading rooms, predominantly utilized by undergraduate students. The Upper Reading Room is dedicated to resources covering History, Art, Archaeology, and Anthropology, while the Lower Reading Room is specifically tailored to English Literature and Theology.

Architecturally speaking, the design of the Library leans towards extravagance, where the allocation of book space is confined to the alcoves and the open central areas. This unique arrangement adds a touch of architectural flair, while still ensuring functionality and accessibility for readers.

During the years 1909 to 1912, an extraordinary feat of engineering took place beneath the north lawn of the library; an underground bookstore spanning two floors, commonly known as “the Radcliffe Link” or “the Link.” This remarkable space was ingeniously connected to the Bodleian Library via a tunnel.

In 2011, the Link underwent a transformative refurbishment and emerged as the “Gladstone Link,” now serving as a collection of reading rooms. This subterranean haven offers an astonishing capacity to accommodate approximately 600,000 books, all housed within the rooms beneath the historic Radcliffe Square.

How To Get to The Radcliffe Camera

Address – Radcliffe Square, Oxford OX1 3BG

The Cam is situated in the heart of Oxford, adjacent to the renowned Bodleian Library, you will find the Radcliffe Camera. The most convenient ways to reach this iconic landmark are through High Street, near St. Mary’s Church, or via Brasenose College Lane and Catte Street. Oxford is well-connected to London with regular train and bus services, making it easily accessible for any tourist or visitor.

Getting there by train – Take the train to the Oxford Train Station

Getting there by bus – High Street Bus Stop T3, T3, L3, L1, L2, T1, T2

Getting there by car – Broad Street Car Park, 52 Broad St, Oxford OX1 3BS