The Radcliffe Camera: Relationship of Form and Function


James Gibbs. Picture by Andrea Soldi (circa 11750).

1. Introduction

The shapely and circular domed building beautifully situated in the open piazza of Radcliffe Square is the Radcliffe Library and known since 1862 as the Radcliffe Camera, see Figure 1. This magnificent library, built between 1737 and 1748, is perhaps the finest work of James Gibbs (1682-1754). This same James Gibbs was probably the “…greatest English architect of the eighteenth century, to which Cambridge owes its Senate House, and London the noble church of St Martin’s in the Fields.” (Wells, 1920). It is also perhaps “…the grandest feature in the grandest of all English architectural landscapes…” (Cunningham, 1831), as it rises vast and wide amidst so many other fine University and college buildings.


Figure 1. The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford. Source: public domain.

The Radcliffe Camera is faced on the right by the Bodleian Library which now occupies the old Examination Schools, built in the reign of James I, and dating from the time of the reformed University of Archbishop Laud. In the background rises the University Church of St Mary’s, the spire and tower of which go back to nearly the beginnings of Oxford, dating from the time of Edward the First.

The relationship between function and form of the Radcliffe Camera will be considered after an historical outline of its architectural antecedents, conception, and eventual building (Section 2). This will be followed by an analysis of its structure, form and function in relation to its environs (Section 3). Finally, these threads will be drawn together in the concluding discussion (Section 4).

2. History, antecedents, and conception of the Radcliffe Camera

In the early 18th century the process of Oxford’s rebuilding “… came to a magnificent conclusion with the creation of Radcliffe Square and the construction of the Radcliffe Library…” (Tyack,1998), between 1737 and 1748. Radcliffe square was described in a poem’s lines “Like a queen in pride of place, she wears the splendour of a crown in Radcliffe’s dome.” (Johnson, cited in Wells, 1920).

Dr Radcliffe’s ‘physic library’, now the Radcliffe Camera, was the ultimate result of a bequest of £40,000 by a successful Oxford physician. Dr John Radcliffe was physician to Queen Anne. Around his library which stands a number of other Oxford buildings and colleges, Hertford College is the recreation of an old hall by Sir Thomas Baring — a Victorian financial magnate. All Souls College was founded by Sir William Codrington also in the time of Queen Anne. Brasenose College, however, was founded in 1511 by Sir Richard Sutton and the Bishop of Lincoln and is a fine example of the typical Oxford college. It contains within itself a chapel representing the last effort of the Gothic style. In its location no non-academic structure fronts on Radcliffe Square. Radcliffe Square with its Camera and attendant buildings, combined with the eventual construction of the Clarendon building, eventually “…formed an essential part of sequences of spaces which have defined the architectural core of the University ever since.” (Tyack, 1998).

As far as the academic influence is concerned the Radcliife Camera has spread beneath the ground with its subterranean chambers excavated between 1909 and 1910. Since 1862 the Camera has been a reading room of the Bodleian Library which, in itself, is the best example of the Jacobean Gothic “…which still held its own in Oxford when the classical style was triumphing elsewhere.” (Wells, 1920). Again, to facilitate its use as a reading room of the Bodleian Library, the original open vestibule of the base has been filled or glazed to provide a second reading area.

The original idea for a free standing circular library was first mooted by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) with his never built design for the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. The scheme was taken up by Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-­1736) who first conceived of the John Radcliffe memorial bequest as a domed rotunda. Hawksmoor was inspired by Wren’s design for a mausoleum for Charles I in 1687 to be built at Windsor. Hawksmoor prepared his design for the Radcliife Library between 1712 and 1715, and again between 1733 and 1734. On the death of Hawksmoor in 1736 the scheme was taken up by James Gibbs who initially saw the project along the lines of Wren’s library at Cambridge. Thus Gibbs’s initial concept was of a long gallery with stalls. The rotunda model was finally adopted and redesigned by Gibbs to produce eventually “… one of the most remarkable library buildings of the century…” (Summerson, 1986). Gibbs developed and enhanced the tradition bequeathed by Wren and Hawksmoor to create, with the Radcliffe Camera, a unique blend of “…Mannerist complexity and Baroque allusion.” (Watkin, 1996). Gibbs was not only the architect of the Radcliffe Camera — he was also one of its benefactors. To the library of John Radcliffe he bequeathed some 500 valuable volumes, chiefly on subjects connected with arts, which included over 100 on architecture.

The Radcliffe Camera can be seen, in terms architectural history, as one of the progeny of the antique circular temple. The circular temple theme, as seen in the Temple of Vesta, see Figure 2, was destined to exhibit many variant forms.

Temple of Vesta

Figure 2. The Temple of Vesta in Rome. 2nd century BC.

An early derivation was the Tempietto (1502) of Donato Bramante (1444-1514) in the cloister of S. Pietro in Montorio. Bramante’s theme for the Tempietto, or `little temple’ [see Figure 3, was derived from the Temple of Vesta which nests on the banks of the Tiber, Rome.the concept is also seen with the dome of Sta Maria della Salute, see Figure 4, in Venice, and begun by Longhena (1604-1675) in 1630.

S Pietro

Figure 3. Tempietto (1502) of Bramante, in cloister of S. Pietro, Montorio.

S Maria della

`Figure 4.  Santa Maria della Salute (1630).  Venice.

Indeed it was Longhena who first used “…large scrolls and volutes to link the two storeys of the facade…” and “…succeeded in hiding the buttresses, features necessary in a vaulted church but hitherto untranslatable into the classical vocabulary.” (Furneaux-Jordan, 1997). A similar feature is seen in Gibbs’s Camera. Known to Wren through Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), probably via his Antiquities of Rome (1554), Bramante’s interpretation was raised to the scale of the colossal by Wren with the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral (1696-1708). Thus Wren’s dome for St Paul’s, see Figure 5, owes much to the Tempietto described as “…a perfect piece of architectural prose — a statement, clear as a bell.” (Summerson, 1995).

St pauls

Figure 5.  St Paul’s Cathedral by Wren (1696-1708).

Hawksmoor’s Mausoleum (1729) for Lord Carlisle at Castle Howard, see Figure 6, represents a different mood but is no less a derivative of the circular temple theme. Hawksmoor’s Mausoleum exhibits a prospect that “… makes it tragic, columns close and forbidding like a palisade, dome deflated, unaspiring…” (Summerson, 1995).

Castle Howard

Figure 6.  The Mausoleum of Castle Howard (1729) by Hawksmoor.

The outline of Gibbs’s dome resembles the vertical aspirations of the dome of Michelangelo’s St Peter’s in Rome. The drum of St Peter’s is supported on curved buttresses that resemble those successfully employed by Longena for Sta Maria della Salute, Venice. Gibbs used elaborated rhythms when he rehandled the concept for the Radcliife Camera. Thus in the 17th and le century the Tempietto idea comes repeatedly into use with a “… colonnade surrounding the cylindrical, domed core.” (Summerson, 1995), which in the mind and hands of Gibbs created the monumental rotundity of the Radcliffe Camera. Hence the plan of two concentric cylinders, the inner one being domed, surrounded by a rusticated base, see Figures 7 and 8.

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Figure 7. Internal structure of the Radcliffe camera.

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Figure 8. Cross section of the Radcliffe Camera.  Source: Tyack (1998).

3.0 Form and function of the Radcliffe Camera

The question now arises whether the Radcliffe Camera is the same theme as those derived from the circular temple motif. The answer is yes, but with certain differences.

In form the Camera is circular with a cupola 100 feet in diameter and 140 feet high, see Figure 7, including its coupled columns (as are those of St Paul’s), its windows and conspicuous buttresses. Though very high, and despite its seeming deficiencies in light and shade, it nonetheless has a deceptive appearance of being squat and low. It bears out the comment made by the Duchess of Marlborough who said of her house at Wimbledon (built by the Earl of Pembroke) that “… it looks as though it were making a courtesy.” (cited in Cunningham, 1831).

In form the Camera is a cylindrical drum, see Figure 8, surmounted by a dome that uses the classical language of architecture, see also Figure 1. In relation to its location it constitutes a circle within a square and thus represents a classical geometrical shape — it is in many respects an illustration of Alberti’s symbol of eternity. The exterior surface is clearly articulated by means of a rusticated lower half surmounted by giant coupled columns interspersed with alternating windows and niches that “… emphasises the library’s monumental rotundity.” (Furneaux-Jordan,  1997). There is thus established a marked contrast between the Renaissance palazzi rustication below and the sculptural variety and richness above. The columns are grouped in unequally spaced pairs. They are arranged over a podium with pedimented projections. The buttresses have an emphatic descent from the dome, see Figure 8, emerging into view above the cornice and balustrade. The bottom is of rusticated stonework – of durable Headington hardstone – that represents solidity, strength and weight. The superstructure used Burford stone. Again the contrast between lower and upper sections is deliberately enhanced by the choice of two different stones in the construction. The three-quarter Corinthian columns of the middle section are arranged in pairs. The niches and windows, which are surmounted by Roman pediments, also alternate. This alternation of columns, windows, niches, with pediments between the column pairs, imparts a rhythm to the whole edifice. It is this irregularity of arrangement that gives the drums a sense of movement and expresses very well the articulation of the surface components — the means by which “…a syncopated rhythm is introduced…” (Tyack, 1998). Again this articulation and movement reminds us of the Temple of Vesta, Bramante’s Tempietto, and Hawksmoor’s Castle Howard Mausoleum.

In terms of the Camera’s function as a library it is somewhat architecturally extravagant — the space for books is restricted to the alcoves and around the open central spaces. In the upper reading room the bookcases are placed in the outer ambulatory. The interior of the Camera has been admired by many, both in sciences and the arts, for the skill with which the building is constructed, see Figures 9 and 10.

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Figure 9.  Interior of Radcliffe Camera. Source: Summerson (1986).

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Figure 10.  Interior of the Radcliffe Camera. Source: Tyack (1998).

Praise is for the art displayed in the construction of the cupola. The upper room is the circular domed portion which is surrounded by an arcade with massive supporting piers that articulate with Ionic pilasters in contrast to the exterior Corinthian three-quarter columns. All the lessons Gibbs learned from Roman architecture are abundantly in evidence here. Gibbs as an architect was enthusiastic about the significance of sculpture within architecture as a whole — a view he shared with Burlington and Kent. Hence the statuary in the upper reading room. Indeed, the statue of John Radcliffe (1744-47) by J. M. Rysbrack stands over the door to the upper reading room, see Figure 10. In some ways, as Summerson (1995) avers, the building is curiously elaborate and sophisticated for its sole function as a library ­even slightly absurd. And yet, despite its contradictory combination of monumentality and airy Baroque lightness, it has a serious function as a space for serious books and serious readers.

Within the library access to the upper reading room is by way of a curved staircase which accentuates interior movement as a reflection of the external movement. The lower reading room has gloomy atmosphere and visibly shows the sturdy internal support for the dome. The functional stack beneath is even less an indicator of the higher spirit shown by the interior grandeur of the upper reading room. The upper room shows light and space embellished with decorative plaster work by Charles Stanley and Thomas Roberts it being said that there is “… no finer classical interior in Oxford, and few in England.” (Tyack, 1998). Using the stack is an isolated chore in musty surroundings, the lower reading room has an academic but wooden ambience and cannot compare to the pleasure of reading in the calm atmospheric surroundings beneath Gibbs’s coiffured summer sky dome. Even so, the underground chambers of the Camera possess a sense of history not found either in the air-raid shelter confinement of the New Bodleian stacks or the pristine mechanics below the Radcliffe Science Library.

4.0 Discussion

The Radcliffe Library or Radcliife Camera was originally envisaged as a sort of memorial, mausoleum, or cenotaph (empty tomb) to celebrate the life of Dr John Radcliffe — who also endowed Oxford and the University with the Radcliffe Infirmary (which still exists but is now surpassed by the two new John Radcliife Hospitals at Headington) and the Radcliffe Observatory (now within the precincts of Green College). Dr John Radcliffe was “…a figure characteristic of the enlightenment. Gibbs hardly was.” (Summerson, 1986). This is not a reflection upon Gibbs as the architect of the Camera but more indicative of him as a man and his background.

In the 18th century the new Palladian aesthetic of Inigo Jones (1573-1652) was greeted with immediate and increasing favour. However James Gibbs (1682­-1754), in the opinion of Germaine Bazin (1996), held aloof from this architectural style. He preferred instead to follow the taste of Wren who derived his inspiration from examples of Roman architecture. James Gibbs thus became the “…last important inheritor of the Baroque style that had been established with Hawksmoor’s help in Wren’s office at the end of the seventeenth century…” (Watkin, 1996). This Baroque style is evident in the sculptural movement — an elusive concept — evident in the Radcliffe Camera. Historically this can in part be credited to the Radcliffe Bequest Trustees who opted for “…full blooded Baroque…” (Tyack, 1998), when other English patrons were embracing Palladianism. The Camera not only encloses a space it also relates to the space that surrounds it, see Figure 11.

Figure 11. Radcliffe Camera dome viewed from Brasenose College quadrangle.

Image (333)Figure 11.  Radcliffe Camera dome viewed from Brasenose College quadrangle.

Drawing by W. G. Blackhall in Wells (1920).

Gone now are the demolished houses of Schools Street and Catte Street and whose acquisition only in 1737 delayed for so long the Camera’s construction. The aerial view though does provide an idea of Hawksmoor’s original plan for rebuilding the central academic core of the University — the Forum Universitatis. In this sense it creates a visual impact that draws the viewers eye around the building, see Figure 11, whose dome conveys the idea “…of its being the air-hung crown of some gigantic cathedral or spire.” (Cunningham, 1831), see Figure 12.

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Figure 12.  Radcliffe Camera and Radcliffe Square viewed from Catte Street

Drawing by W. G. Blackhall in Wells (1920).

The Camera with its “… magnificent rotundity… (Furngtaux-Jordan, R. 1997) is an example of monumentality that drew a comment from  Walpole — a bitter enemy of Gibbs — that Gibbs “…like  Vanbrugh had no aversion to ponderosity.” (cited in Cunningham, 1831). Furthermore Walpole argued that Gibbs was not particularly inventive and regularly heavy in his style adding that “His praise was fidelity to rules; his failing want of grace.” (cited in Cunningham, 1831).

Yet Gibbs was intimately familiar with the works of the great architectural masters. He trained in Rome under the late Baroque if not post-Baroque architect Carlo Fortuna (1638-1714). Gibbs thus had an eclectic style that combined a restrained Baroque tradition of Wren with elements of Italian Mannerism. Returning to England in 1709 he joined Hawksmoor in 1713 as one of two surveyors to the Commissioners for building fifty new churches in London. Consequently his St Mary­le-Strand (1714-1717) with its two main storeys and tabernacle windows is more Roman Mannerist than Baroque. However, his St Martin’s-in-the-Fields (1721-1726) represents a reversion to Wren’s academic classicism. Gibbs made skilful use of his mathematical knowledge to give strength and elegance to his architecture. The three chief excellencies of architecture — beauty, durability, and use — were well understood by him and admirably expressed in the Radcliffe Camera. Surely a greater epitaph than the caustic criticism of Hugh Walpole. In truth, Gibbs was not insensible to massive stonework and skilful masonry work and this is admirably seen in the rustication of the Camera. Added to this he published a book in 1728 called the Book of Architecture — which became a popular manual for provincial builders for many years. Yet surprisingly Gibbs had no followers. Gibbs was a Scot and a Tory whose suspect Catholicism and Jacobite sympathies prevented him from building far more than he actually did. Hence the previous comment that Gibbs was not, as was his posthumous patron John Radcliffe, a figure of the enlightenment.

The Radcliffe Camera shows features of northern Baroque architectural style with its restraint, sobriety, and quiet monumentality compared to the more exuberant southern style. The Camera is geometrical, formal and precise and does not show the greater licence and spirit of the southern European and Italian forms. Nonetheless the Baroque features of pilaster rhythm (here columnar rhythm), to emphasise activity and movement, are evident in the Camera. Again, there is directional emphasis within as the spatial arched sequences ensure. Again, in Baroque terms, the Camera shows an architectural unity and direction which is achieved by Gibbs’s subordinating its component parts for the benefit of the whole. Despite Walpole’s criticism of Gibbs’s so-called ponderosity the Radcliffe camera displays an elegance and vitality that creates a cosmopolitan contrast to the surrounding buildings. This is no mean achievement, As Tyack (1998) points out when considering the rectangular mass of Schools Quad, St Mary’s Gothic spikiness, and All Souls College, in relation to the Radcliffe Camera. There is indeed a successful happy affect in this fortuitous juxtaposition of the Gothic and the Baroque. The Camera in many respects is the jewel within the central area of Oxford in its definitive form. Perhaps today the Radcliffe Camera has assumed the queenly mantle once ascribed to Radcliffe Square itself — whatever, Gibbs managed to impart an aura to his Camera and that is indeed an achievement regardless of Walpole’s opinion.


Bazin, G.  (1996).  Baroque and Rococo.  Thames & Hudson, London.

Cunningham, A.  (1831).  Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Vol, 4.  John Murray, London.

Furneaux Jordan, R.  (1997).  Western Architecture.  Thames & Hudson, London.

Summerson, J.  (1986).  The Architecture of the Eighteenth Century.  Thames and Hudson, London.

Summerson, J.  (1998).  The Classical Language of Architecture.  Thames & Hudson, London.

Tyack, G.  (1998).  Oxford: an architectural guide.  OUP, Oxford.

Watkin, D.  (1996).  English Architecture.  Thames & Hudson, London.

Wells, J.  (1920).  The Charm of Oxford.  Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. London.


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