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Radcliffe Camera: Everything You Need to Know About Oxford’s Famous Library

Radcliffe Camera: Everything You Need to Know About Oxford’s Famous Library

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Let’s face it – there’s no Oxford building quite as iconic as the Radcliffe Camera. 

You can find the building’s spectacular dome making an appearance in almost every photograph of the city, its half-moon shape peeping out next to Oxford’s beautiful spired skyline.

So it’s no surprise that paying a visit to the Radcliffe Camera is on most people’s bucket list when it comes to visiting Oxford. 

Luckily it’s perched in Radcliffe Square, smack-bang in the heart of Oxford – so no matter how long you’re spending in the city, it’s very easy to work into your Oxford itinerary. In fact, you would have to try very hard not to see it.

Whilst you can’t technically go inside the Radcliffe Camera – it’s out of bounds unless you’re a student – you can very much admire its beauty (and swot up on its fascinating history) from the outside.

Here’s what you need to know before you visit.

Looking to explore the Radcliffe Camera? We recommend this guided walking tour, which is led by an Oxford University alumni and takes you to all the top spots in Oxford. 

Wait, What is the Radcliffe Camera?

One of the most celebrated buildings in Oxford, the Radcliffe Camera was built between 1737 and 1749, and it sits at 140ft tall. 

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Beautiful as the rest of the structure is, it’s the phenomenal dome (the third largest in the UK) that makes the Rad Cam so instantly recognisable in any photo. 

But what is the Radcliffe Camera building used for? Today, the Radcliffe Camera is the main reading room of the Bodleian Library and still houses some of the library’s collections – such as a fraction of the English Literature collection, though that wasn’t the iconic building’s original function. 

The library was first built to hold scientific and general books for the University, though these collections were eventually moved to other libraries within the University, like the New and Old Bodleians. 

Which Architect Designed the Radcliffe Camera? 

James Gibbs was the architect responsible for designing the Radcliffe Camera. He was born in Scotland in 1682, though he cut his teeth in the architecture sphere in Rome before moving to England to continue working.

Gibbs was selected to design the Radcliffe Camera out of a rather impressive pool of architects (including Nicholas Hawksmoor who co-designed London’s The Old Royal Naval College among many other prestigious buildings ) who each submitted their own designs. 

Funnily enough, Gibbs’ design was actually very similar to an earlier piece created by Hawksmoor.

Radcliffe Camera

The Radcliffe Camera wasn’t his only famous piece of architecture, with Gibbs also responsible for St Martin-in-the-Fields at Trafalgar Square and the Senate House at Cambridge University.

Gibbs’ work was often a bridge between Baroque and Georgian architecture, with strong influences from Sir Christopher Wren. 

Interestingly, the Radcliffe Camera was designed in a distinct Palladian style – a movement that was dominating the UK at the time – and one that Gibbs was strongly trying (and evidently failing) to resist.

The lower part of the Rad Cam was built from Headington freestone and the upper section is made from Tayton stone – while the dome (innovative, at the time) was designed with a symmetrical, repetitive pattern in a typical Palladian style.

The History of the Radcliffe Camera 

RAdcliffe Camera Oxford

The Radcliffe Library, as it was originally known, was built between the years of 1737 and 1749 using the generous £40,000 donated by Dr John Radcliffe.

The library originally ran independently from the Bodleian Library, with a primary focus on natural history and medical books. Though, in 1860, running of the Radcliffe Library was taken over by the Bodleian Library and the building was renamed the Radcliffe Camera shortly after.

As it has played such a huge role in Oxford University’s history, it’s no wonder that this famous building has been given Grade I status, noted to be well-worthy of extra protection. 

While the Radcliffe Camera is not open to the public, we recommend heading to Radcliffe Square Oxford to snap an indulgent picture – you can even try to catch a glimpse of the inside through the building’s huge windows.

Why Is It Called Radcliffe Camera?

No, sadly this building is not a giant camera – ‘camera’ simply means ‘room’.

The Rad Cam was actually named after Dr. John Radcliffe, the Physician to William III and Mary of England. As well as this, Dr Radcliffe was a member of parliament and a scientist who entrusted a hefty sum to Oxford University following his death in 1714. 

The proviso? He urged that a library must be built.

The Underground Tunnel

Did you know that there’s a (not-so-secret) underground tunnel beneath Radcliffe Square, linking the beautiful Bodleian Library with the Radcliffe Camera?

Though it was only opened to readers in  2011, it was named after the former PM William Gladstone, who studied at Christ Church many, many years before.

The tunnel was previously the Underground Bookstore, used for transporting books between libraries via a conveyor belt system – part of which is still preserved in the New Bodleian tunnel. 

Planning Your Visit to the Rad Cam  

Radcliffe Camera Oxford Address 

The Rad Cam is located in Radcliffe Square. Radcliffe Sq, Oxford OX1 3BG. 

On a Tour 

Take the stress out of planning your Radcliffe Camera Oxford visit with a guided tour – you won’t be see the Radcliffe Camera Oxford inside, but tours will be led by local specialist guides who can explain the fascinating history of the Radcliffe Camera, as well as spilling a whole host of interesting secrets.

We recommend this guided walking tour, which is led by an Oxford University alumni. This walking tour takes you behind the scenes of a select few of the very many colleges the city boasts, as well as to the Rad Cam and the University Church of St Mary. 

On this tour, your guide will also share enchanting facts about famous literary links to Oxford, as well as everything you need to know about big-name alumni that have spawned from the city.

If you’re travelling to Oxford from London, we recommend this guided tour. 

Not only will you be able to enter Christ Church College and pass all of the hotspots of the university city (including the Radcliffe Camera), but you’ll also be treated to a delicious lunch in a 14th-century tavern – in true Oxford style.

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford Map 

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