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Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

Valeria Carullo

England's first circular library

Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection Credit: Bill Toomey

The Radcliffe Camera was originally known as the Physic Library, even if the accessions it received until 1811 were of a mixed nature, and did in any case not consist exclusively of books, but also busts, statues, marbles, coins and other objects. It owes its current name to John Radcliffe, a notable Oxford doctor, who left at his death in 1714 the funds for the building of a new library, close to the Bodleian. A number of architects, including Christopher Wren, John Vanbrugh and Thomas Archer were considered, but eventually only Nicholas Hawksmoor and James Gibbs were invited in 1734 to submit plans. Hawksmoor came up with the idea of a rotunda – his model for the building is preserved in the Bodleian – but it was Gibbs’s design that was selected. The building, completed in 1748, is the earliest example in England of a circular library.  It consists internally of two storeys - which are now both reading rooms of the Bodleian - connected by the elliptical staircase shown in this photograph, which highlights the fine wrought-iron balustrade and decorated plaster ceiling.