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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

Religion and the Radcliffe Camera

Photo credit: DAVID ILIFFCC BY-SA 3.0

The Radcliffe Camera was built between 1737 and 1748. A memorial to a rich man – the medic, businessman, and beneficiary of the slave trade, John Radcliffe (1650-1714) – more than a working library, it was paid from a bequest in Radcliffe’s will. The initial plans, now in the Ashmolean Museum, were prepared by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736). But it was another man who got to build this most recognizable emblem of Oxford. Curiously, in the middle of this Anglican, English University, the designer chosen was the Catholic Scot James Gibbs (1682-1754), who had travelled to Rome to train for the priesthood before becoming an architect. Gibbs was, however, an appropriate choice in more ways than one. John Radcliffe, a scholar at University College, had been tutored by Obadiah Walker (1616-1699), a Roman Catholic convert (see satellite image 1). Radcliffe’s trustees, charged with overseeing the construction of the Camera, were similarly disaffected with the Hanoverian monarchs and may have harboured hopes for a return of the Catholic Stuarts from exile in France. Thus, this building in many respects stands for an alternative and less loyal tradition in Oxford.