Radcliffe Camera

James Gibbs

This library was named after the physician Dr. John Radcliff who left £40,000 toward the building and its endowment (though the building wasn't begun until 23 years after his death in 1714). Although Hawksmoor did a number of designs for the building--as a circular domed space, his death in 1736 opened the way for Gibbs, who was persuaded to give up his rectangular plan and to adopt Hawksmoor's plan. The Library is upstairs--a circular domed reading room surrounded by an arcade. The bookcases are in the outer ambulatory behind the arcade.
The ground floor was originally open and is heavily rusticated, a reminder of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque architecture Gibbs had seen when he studied in Italy. Large pedimented arches occupy alternate bays with empty round-headed niches in between. The reading room is thus raised on this heavy base. On the next register, paired gigantic Corinthian three-quarter columns separate bays of unequal, alternating widths. The niches within the spaces conceal the buttresses whereas the windows light the reading room. (The buttresses can be seen above the cornice and balustrade.)
John Summerson describes many of the elements of the exterior of this library as primarily Mannerist. He says "Essentially Mannerist is the treatment of the Corinthian order, whose coupled columns separate alternate wide and narrow bays, the difference in width being, however, purposely ambiguous. Again, above the order, the buttresses of the dome come down between and not over the pairs of columns, and yet the bays in which they are occur are precisely not the bays which are strengthened by forward breaks in the rusticated base. Moreover, these emphatic units in the base line up with only one of each pair of columns in the bay above them. The rhythms of the whole structure are thus extremely complicated. No emphasis falls just where you would expect it; everything is syncopated. Very rarely in English architecture has the spirit of Mannerism been so pronounced" (357).

See Index for additional works by Gibbs.

Work Cited:
John Summerson. Architecture in Britain 1530-1830. Pelican History of Art. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1977.

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