A perspective view of the outside of the Radcliffe Library, Oxford
Architect: James Gibbs (1737-48)
Engraving: from Bibliotheca Radcliviana, James Gibbs (1747)
Source: RIBA British Architectural Library
Radcliffe Square is often regarded as the hub of Oxford University. Around the round, domed library or camera can be found many of the most important university buildings, superb architectural specimens dating from the Middle Ages onwards. Built of golden Cotswold stone and richly decorated, this ensemble delights because of its variety of shapes: a combination of cones, cubes, hemispheres, and cylinders, this is like a giant set of children’s building blocks. Perhaps it is this underlying simplicity that so engages visitors whenever they encounter the square?
Most attention grabbing, however, is the Camera (1737-1748), shown in this engraving. Originally this housed the library donated by Dr John Radcliffe to Oxford University. Its designer, James Gibbs (1682-1754), was unique amongst British eighteenth-century architects in that he trained in Rome, and the Camera’s architecture reflects this.
A sophisticated Italian Baroque building, it plays with rhythms and space. Circulating around, doors and windows are followed by empty niches; storeys decrease then increase in height; ornamentation accelerates then decelerates, appearing most decadent around the cornice. And, until 1863, the camera’s ground floor was open, as seen here, enabling visitors to go round and through the building. Such sophisticated architecture, full of movement, would not have disgraced Baroque Rome itself.