John Radcliffe (1652–1714) was a phenomenally successful Oxford-educated physician who, in the words of his acerbic contemporary Thomas Hearne, had “little learning but … a great sagacity [and] he never had his equal by which he got such a vast sum of Money.” Radcliffe left the bulk of his wealth to his alma mater with the provision that the greatest part should be spent on building a new library in central Oxford, the remainder being set aside for a new quadrangle at his old college. The largest part of the bequest, £40,000 ($62,537), led in 1737–47 to the construction of the library now known as the Radcliffe Camera. Oxford’s first hospital, the Radcliffe Infirmary, followed in 1759–67 on what was then the northern fringe of the city, and in 1773–94 the Radcliffe Observatory went up on an adjacent site. The Radcliffe Trust continues to do valuable charitable and scientific research work today, as this small but well-chosen exhibition reminded visitors, but for architectural historians its value lay in the insight it gave into the buildings that still bear the benefactor’s name.

Since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs, people have tried to cheat death and oblivion by erecting massive memorial structures. Writing in 1744, Thomas Salmon alluded to Radcliffe’s alleged wish to “perpetuate his memory by the Library [in Oxford] and therefore to give it the name of Ratcliff’s Mausoleum.” This may explain the seemingly perverse decision to build the library in the form of a domed rotunda, inspired by ancient mausoleums and by Bramante’s Tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio on the Janiculum hill in Rome. Serlio’s illustration of the Tempietto (L’Architettura III, 1540) was included in the exhibition, alongside the lesser-known (and unexecuted) design by Sir Christopher Wren of ca. 1675 (All Souls College, Oxford) for a circular library at Trinity College, Cambridge. And in about 1712, before Radcliffe’s death, Wren’s pupil and draftsman Nicholas Hawksmoor, who enjoyed the favor of Oxford University’s vice-chancellor, prepared a scheme for a massively rusticated rotunda for the proposed library on two floors, to be placed next to the west wing (Selden End) of the Bodleian Library. An elevation and cross section of this scheme (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) were shown in the exhibition, their subtle draftsmanship and use of shading presenting an instructive contrast to Wren’s less refined style.

Hawksmoor’s plans for the new library cannot be understood without reference to his schemes for replanning the center of Oxford, shown in the large and rarely seen ground plan labeled “Regio Prima [First District]” (Bodleian Library); it was displayed next to a printed version of Wren’s plan for rebuilding the City of London of 1666. Hawksmoor’s scheme featured a new urban space—now Radcliffe Square—separating the university’s seventeenth-century Schools Quadrangle, now part of the Bodleian Library, from the medieval University Church; another Hawksmoor drawing of 1715 (Ashmolean Museum) shows the library rotunda now resting on a square rusticated base and projecting into the new square from the south range of the Schools Quadrangle, to which it is linked by a short passage. This design was later modified, and the site moved south, closer to the center of the new Radcliffe Square; the final result was immortalized in a large and rarely seen wooden model, made in 1734–35 and recently restored (Figure 1). This was the most spectacular exhibit in the show, constructed in sections that could be taken apart to reveal the massive internal walls by which Hawksmoor proposed to buttress the stone dome.

Figure 1

Model of Nicolas Hawksmoor’s final design for the Radcliffe Library, made by John Smallwell in 1734–35 and recently restored (Library Objects 616; copyright The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford).

Figure 1

Model of Nicolas Hawksmoor’s final design for the Radcliffe Library, made by John Smallwell in 1734–35 and recently restored (Library Objects 616; copyright The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford).

Hawksmoor’s model was clearly the main inspiration for the building that we see today. Before work could start, however, the ground for Radcliffe Square had to be acquired, and by the time this was achieved Hawksmoor had died. His place as architect was taken by the Italian-trained James Gibbs, whose Tory sympathies were congenial to the university dons. The elevation and cross section of his first design of 1737 (Bodleian Library) show how Gibbs introduced a baroque sense of movement and sprezzatura to the exterior in place of Hawksmoor’s classically inspired monumentality, meanwhile bringing more light into the domed and galleried reading room on the piano nobile. Further changes followed in quick succession, culminating in a decision, once the building had reached roof height in 1741, to substitute a lead-covered timber dome for the stone one originally envisaged—a change of mind that has never been fully explained. A model of Gibbs’s proposed stone dome now surmounts a pavilion in the garden of St Giles House (now part of St John’s College)—one of Oxford’s least-known architectural curiosities—but it is his timber dome that now serenely presides over the towers, spires, and pinnacles of Gothic Oxford.

Given the limited available exhibition space, in one of the former lecture rooms of the Schools Quadrangle, it is not surprising that the architectural section should have been dominated by the Radcliffe Camera, a name Gibbs’s library acquired in 1863, when it became one of the Bodleian’s reading rooms, and that has bemused visitors to Oxford ever since. The story of this magnificent building, for many people still the symbolic heart of the university, is ably recounted in Stephen Hebron’s Dr Radcliffe’s Library, published to accompany the exhibition and reproducing many of its drawings.

The other buildings financed by the Radcliffe Trust received less coverage in the exhibition: the frigidly Palladian Infirmary, now occupied by university departments, and the Observatory (now part of Green Templeton College), one of the major monuments of European neoclassical architecture, the architectural and scientific importance of which would merit an exhibition of its own. But by highlighting the role of John Radcliffe and his trust in shaping the Oxford we see today, the Bodleian Library has done a significant service to all who seek to understand the role of enlightened patronage in creating the architecture of the eighteenth century.

Related Publication

Stephen Hebron, Dr Radcliffe’s Library: The Story of the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2014), 104 pp., 8 color and 36 b/w illus. $25, £12.99, ISBN 9781851244294